To his credit, Bryce Harper has at least had some fun with his free-agent status. When TV analyst Tony Romo correctly predicted the Patriots' movements and plays multiple times during the AFC Championship Game, Harper tweeted, "Confirmed: Just called Tony Romo to see where I'm going to play next year." When the Twitter handle for MLB The Show asked, "Which team in the NL East would go furthest with Bryce?" Harper responded with a thinking emoji.
What maybe isn't so amusing for Harper is that with spring training kicking off in two weeks, he remains unsigned. While the Phillies and Nationals remain the most visible landing spots, there is apparently a new team in the mix, as Harper will meet with Padres officials Thursday in his hometown of Las Vegas. While we don't know how serious the Padres' intentions are, they've now been linked with Manny Machado, J.T. Realmuto and Harper with increasing intensity the past few days. It seems they want to do something big.
Harper to the Padres makes more sense than it may appear at first glance:
• San Diego is close to home for Harper.
• The Padres have lots of prospects on the way, so you can read the tea leaves and see a bright future. They need a foundation piece -- especially since it isn't Eric Hosmer.
• There would be much less media to deal with than in D.C. or Philadelphia (let alone New York or Los Angeles, one-time potential Harper destinations).
• Franmil Reyes, Hunter Renfroe, Wil Myers and Franchy Cordero are not roadblocks to signing Harper. Please. Sure, the Padres have a glut of corner outfielders, but none of those guys came close to Harper's .393 OBP last year, or will come close in 2019 or any other season. In fact, the Padres were dead last in the National League with a .297 OBP. They need Harper.
• In fact, if they sign Harper, a couple of those corner outfielders could be used as trade bait for a third baseman or as part of a Realmuto deal. (The Padres would also likely send along Francisco Mejia in such a trade with the Marlins.)
A lot of these same arguments can be made about Machado, and with the Padres having a clear opening at third base, you can argue he's a better fit. It would seem, however, that Harper -- as a West Coast guy who has spent his entire career in the NL -- is a more likely bet to choose San Diego.
Now, of course, the question that always arises in these situations: money. Will the Padres spend it? One of the crafty things owners have managed to spin on fans is the idea of limited resources as an excuse to limit spending. Keep this in mind: According to MLB's own public statement, overall revenue across the majors increased $300 million in 2018 while payroll decreased $18 million. That increased revenue is not going to the players. That revenue doesn't include funds that can be hidden, such as from teams' local TV deals. Many teams own a stake in their regional sports network, including Padres CEO Ron Fowler, who has a 20 percent stake in Fox Sports San Diego.
In other words: Money is out there if teams want to spend it. In the Padres' case, the team recently shared some financial numbers with Kevin Acee of the San Diego Union-Tribune. The Padres claim that only a $35 million cash call from ownership and a $68 million payment after MLB sold BAMTech allowed the team to break even. (The article didn't define over what period of years "break even" referred to.)
Back in 2015, when then-rookie general manager A.J. Preller conducted his offseason frenzy that included trading for Matt Kemp and Craig Kimbrel and signing James Shields, the Padres went from 77 wins to ... 74. In the Union-Tribune article, the Padres say they increased payroll $40 million that offseason, but saw just a $15 million increase in ticket and merchandise revenue. That winter's poor results seemed to have scared off Fowler.
"I didn't need much change in my belief, but it convinced me that the business model didn't work," Fowler said. "We had a blip in terms of revenue ... [and] we dug a big hole for ourselves."
According to Cot's Contracts, the Padres' payroll was only $25 million higher in 2015, but the point is that this all sounds like owner-speak for why they don't want to risk spending the money on free agents. Of course, this is the franchise that gave $144 million last offseason to Hosmer, so who knows.
Anyway, Cot's projects the Padres' current payroll at ... just $80 million. They do have the long-term commitments to Hosmer (through 2025) and Wil Myers (through 2022), but with so many incoming prospects, their roster is going to be full of dirt-cheap youngsters. Even with Harper at $30 million per season, the payroll would still sit below last year's $130 million figure.
So, there is room for Harper. There is room for Harper and Realmuto. Or Harper and Dallas Keuchel. Or Harper and Mike Moustakas to play third base. How about this lineup once Fernando Tatis Jr. -- Keith Law's No. 1 overall prospect -- gets called up, maybe after the All-Star break:
2B Luis Urias
C J.T. Realmuto
RF Bryce Harper
LF Wil Myers
1B Eric Hosmer
3B Mike Moustakas
SS Fernando Tatis Jr.
CF Manual Margot
Pitchers Chris Paddack and Logan Allen are just about MLB-ready and could join the rotation at some point this season, while others like MacKenzie Gore and Adrian Morejon are further away. That's why a veteran leader like Keuchel makes sense.
In the end, it's all part of the big question: How much do the Padres want to win? Because signing Bryce Harper will make them a better -- and certainly more interesting -- team. Fowler's group purchased the Padres in 2012 and he has yet to see his franchise have even a winning season. But maybe it doesn't matter: The value of the franchise has grown from its $600 million purchase price to an estimated $1.2 billion.