As we approach the 2019 MLB Winter Meetings and the inevitable full-on lighting of the proverbial Hot Stove, Bryce Harper remains one of the crown jewels available on the free agent market. While we don’t know where he will end up, we can assume this: the Detroit Tigers will absolutely not be in on the action.
But why shouldn’t they be?
Harper is an offensive upgrade in any lineup
And, boy oh boy, does the Tigers lineup — who ranked in the bottom third of the league in most offensive statistical categories in 2018 — need an upgrade.
We’ve seen what Harper is capable of doing at the plate, particularly in his stellar 2015 National League MVP campaign, though it certainly took a while until that was on display this last season. While his slow start ultimately reflected on his final .249 batting average and higher-than-usual strikeout numbers (169 strikeouts, 24.3 percent strikeout rate), Harper’s 2018 was, otherwise, business as usual. He launched 34 home runs and drove in 100 runs, and scored over 100 runs (103) for the second time in his career. And he did all of this while earning his sixth National League all-star game nod.
Looking deeper, Harper registered strong numbers in many advanced statistics as well, including a .247 ISO, .376 weighted on-base average (wOBA), 116 weighted runs created (wRC), and a 135 wRC+. His most valuable asset may come in his impeccable eye at the plate, as he drew a MLB-high 130 walks (only 16 of them intentional) to the tune of a .393 on-base percentage and 18.7 percent walk rate.
Outside of the statistics, Harper, like my proposed pursuit of Justin Bour, would bring a left-handed bat to a Tigers lineup that heavily features right-handed personnel.
Defensively, on the other hand...
Harper wouldn’t be a significant upgrade over incumbent right fielder Nicholas Castellanos. While Castellanos ranked ninth in revised zone rating (.913) and last in defensive runs saved (-19), ultimate zone rating (-12.9), and defensive runs above average (-19.2) among qualifying right fielders, Harper wasn’t much better.
In fact, in some areas, he was worse.
Sure, Harper’s .993 fielding percentage looks promising enough on the surface. And, yes, some stats are slightly skewed due to his playing 26 fewer games in right field than Castellanos. But a deeper dive reveals some issues. Using UZR/150 to give a more comparable look, Harper stacks up short of Castellanos at a -15.4 mark. Harper also registers an unimpressive -16 defensive runs saved (DRS). His revised zone rating (RZR) of .936 is probably his best defensive measurement.
With Castellanos, the main complaint comes from his defense, or lack thereof. While offensive production would be up, there would be little, if any, progress in putting Harper in right over him.
Why do we want the Tigers sign him?
The Tigers, after a stagnant offensive year, are in need of a catalyst. Harper, like Ivan Rodriguez in 2004, is a player that can provide such a presence. In addition to bringing his bat, he brings hustle, swagger, and bat flips. He’s among the younger generation of players who are making baseball fun. At 26, he is just entering his prime. If a couple of other signings are made around him, paired with the crop of pitching prospects and other up-and-comers, he could play a large part in making the longing for contention in 2020 (or shortly after) a reality.
Plus, with the American League Central, an already weak division, growing weaker still, Harper, along with the right lower-priced veteran signings, could allow the Tigers an outside shot to make a bit of noise within the division as early as this coming season.
At the end of the day, this won’t happen
Where Harper will go remains shrouded in mystery. It’s likely that we will see progress towards a decision at the Winter Meetings (although agent Scott Boras likes to drag these things out). But it’s almost certainly a given that the Tigers, with their burden of a $110 million payroll, will even spare a passing glance at Harper.
Keep dreaming, Tigers fans. One of these days it will once again be your day to lure the big names to your baseball club.