Bryce Harper, a National League MVP at 23, is a free agent at 26, peddling his services in an industry that’s grown to nearly $11 billion in annual revenues. His combination of skills, age and marketing cachet make him an excellent fit for any major league franchise.
Even the Toronto Blue Jays.
Harper, who has 184 career home runs and a lifetime .900 OPS, rejected a 10-year, $300 million contract offer from the Nationals in September, and is a good bet to set a new standard for the most lucrative contract in North American sports history.
It’s taken weeks – and will possibly require several more – for that process to play out. In the meantime, USA TODAY Sports will examine why every team could use Harper’s services – some more than others, certainly some better-equipped to procure them.
A case for Harper and the Blue Jays joining forces:
On the field
By modern baseball standards, the Blue Jays should be in the game’s imaginary penalty box a while longer.
Dormant for most of this century, Toronto swung from its heels and aimed for a World Series berth. Darn near got it, too.
To break a three-decade playoff drought and reach consecutive American League Championship Series, the Blue Jays flipped prospects like day-old Tim Horton’s doughnuts to import Josh Donaldson, David Price, Troy Tulowitzki and R.A. Dickey.
They defied modern baseball knowledge by lavishing $82.5 million on an aging catcher, Russell Martin.
And what a ride it was: Bat flips, wild-card walk-offs and more than 3 million fans once again pouring into Rogers Centre, the latest venue to be awoken from decades of dormancy by a novel concept: An aggressive, contending team.
Now, the bill has come due for those years, and a quick glance at the damage shows it’s not that bad.
Oh, the balance sheet is ugly this year: The team still owes the released Tulowitzki $37 million over the next two seasons. Martin’s salary balloons to $20 million in the final year of his deal. Kendrys Morales and Justin Smoak will pull in $20 million to hit home runs and strike out a lot, and do precious little else.
That’s pretty much it, though. Meanwhile, a farm system that by all rights should be emaciated after burning through so much prospect capital is one of the 10 deepest in the game.
Nope, this Blue Jays rebuild is far from a nightmare. And this is where we suggest they dare to dream a bit.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. won’t turn 20 until March and should debut in the major leagues shortly thereafter – by all rights, on Opening Day, but more likely by the end of April should the Blue Jays hose him out of a full year of service time.
Ugly though that maneuver may be, it also allows one to indulge this vision: Guerrero and Harper in the middle of Toronto’s lineup for nearly seven seasons.
In case you’re unfamiliar with Guerrero, he’s the son of the Hall of Famer who has posted a .943 minor league OPS while competing against players, on average, three to seven years older than him. It is folly to label any prospect as “can’t-miss,” but Guerrero’s prodigious skills – crazy power and a preternatural plate discipline – seemingly guarantee a significant level of big league success.
Pairing him with Harper would instantly make the Blue Jays lineup a bear to deal with, and provide a potent foundation to build upon.
Off the field
Shipping baseball’s most recognizable star out of the country might seem like a marketing nightmare, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Oh, Harper would still get plenty of exposure: Nearly 40 games a year against the Yankees and Red Sox, and an entire country to himself. If Major League Baseball truly has designs on expanding (or relocating) to Montreal, it could not hurt to place Harper in Canada, and steal a few more eyeballs not only for Jays broadcasts, but in a crossover fashion. The dude also speaks fluent hockey, thanks to his avid Vegas Golden Knights fandom, which wouldn’t hurt ingratiating himself to the locals.
And Toronto is plenty big: It’s easily a top 10 MLB market, though exact definitions are elusive because Nielsen ratings and market sizes do not measure Canadian cities.
So while it might seem, to the average American baseball fan, that Harper would be playing on the dark side of the moon, he’d still be in front of plenty of fans. And in this streaming, MLB Network/Extra Innings package era, the avid fan in the USA would have easy access to his games.
Can they pull it off?
Perhaps no major league team has its assets as nebulously defined as the Blue Jays.
They are owned by Rogers Communications, which can sell you your monthly wireless phone plan, provide Internet and TV service in your home – oh, and broadcast every Blue Jays game into it on Rogers Sportsnet.
Imagine a major league team owned by Verizon and ESPN. OK, it’s not a perfect analogy, but suffice to say, the Blue Jays’ parent company’s tentacles are everywhere. Essentially, they can make the Jays as relevant as they want.
Naturally, no massive, amorphous corporation wants its earnings siphoned off by overpaid banjo hitters on a poor-performing baseball team. But the Blue Jays aren’t exactly a drag on the Rogers portfolio.
They are valued by Forbes at $1.4 billion, with annual revenues in the $275 million range. Their fans also love a winner: They drew more than 3 million fans in 2016 and ’17, and raised ticket prices to match the demand. Alas, it all fell apart last season, when the team cratered, Donaldson missed almost the entire season and attendance plummeted to 2.3 million.
Still: Toronto fans have proven they will provide a return if you dare invest in the team.
Will it happen?
Highly unlikely. Oh, the Blue Jays break character now and again – remember their out-of-nowhere, $102 million splurge on pitchers A.J. Burnett and B.J. Ryan way back in 2005? The five years and $82.5 million they gave Martin before the 2014 season was also a relative stunner.
But they generally like to keep their books clean; a corporation like Rogers could decide to spin off the Jays almost any time, and while investing $300 million-plus in Harper might be sound both from a baseball and brand-building standpoint, potential buyers or investors may not agree.
And that’s too bad. Harper might never own Toronto – wresting that designation from Maple Leafs prodigy Auston Matthews would prove challenging. But in tandem with Guerrero, Harper would make the Blue Jays matter – and create a can’t-miss attraction in two countries.