Revisiting Giants’ Free-agency Pursuit of Bryce Harper in Offseason

[CSNBY] Revisiting Giants' free-agency pursuit of Bryce Harper in offseason
Alex Pavlovic

SAN FRANCISCO -- The chase was an outlier at the time, and months later, the Giants' two Las Vegas meetings with Bryce Harper look even stranger. 

The first Giants roster of the Farhan Zaidi Era is now built around guys like Alex Dickerson and Mike Yastrzemski, picked up with little fanfare from the Padres and Orioles, respectively. The roster has become flexible. Zaidi is seeking incremental gains in every transaction. His biggest splurge ended up being a $7 million deal given to Derek Holland, and the left-hander was sent away before the calendar turned to August.

It's a new way of doing things for the Giants, a refreshing way that has them surprisingly in the wild-card race, and yet, there's that outlier: The Giants offered one player 12 years and $310 million to come to San Francisco, and for years they'll be wondering what could have been. 

Harper will play at Oracle Park tonight for the first time since choosing the Phillies and their $330 million check, and there were mixed emotions within the organization as this date approached. Some involved with that pursuit feel they dodged a bullet given that Harper is on pace for a .838 OPS and 28 homers, a good but not great season. But most look at a lineup that is missing a marquee bat and still feel the chase was worth it. They wonder what kind of difference Harper could have made in April and May, or in a wild-card race that's tightly bunched and may come down to a win or two in late September. 

"We're still missing that one guy in the heart of the order," one person involved said recently. "He would have made everyone else better. You saw how Dickerson was able to do that for a while."

There's another factor here, one that was on display as Harper's old team came to Oracle Park for three games in a park that was far from full. The Giants are averaging 33,125 fans per game, a steep drop from their 38,965 a year ago. The Phillies, on the other hand, are up more than 8,000 fans per game.

Marketing always mattered in the Harper chase, which was a big part of the reason he stood out in a free-agent class that otherwise didn't appeal to the Giants. Team officials believed, and still do, that he would have made a significant impact on attendance, which could help improve future rosters. 

The baseball appeal was simple. What made Harper different than the other outfielders available on the market -- guys the Giants hardly considered? He's 26 years old, and Zaidi believed he would still be in his prime when the Giants were again ready to realistically push for a World Series. 

In February, it was popular to frame the Harper chase as ownership-driven, but multiple sources familiar with negotiations have always insisted otherwise. The first call on Harper was from Zaidi to Larry Baer, not the other way around, with the new head of baseball operations selling ownership on a potential opportunity. 

Harper's market had largely dried up and the baseball operations staff believed his power would play at Oracle Park, with his on-base skills -- his .371 OBP would easily lead the Giants -- keeping him valuable for years to come. The team's analytics staff dug into the defensive metrics and determined Harper's warts there were overstated and not a valid reason to slow their pursuit. They were right; Harper was worth negative-16 Defensive Runs Saved last year but is at plus-3 this year. 

Baer and Zaidi first met with Harper, his wife Kayla, and agent Scott Boras in early February. Weeks later, the two executives traveled back to Las Vegas for a second meeting. Bruce Bochy was at that initial meeting and discussed his own plans with Harper, who expressed an interest in playing for the manager but knew his future was uncertain. 

The talks got serious enough that the Giants started preparing for Harper's arrival at Scottsdale Stadium, and on the other end, Harper called members of the team to find out more about the organization and what it was like to have a family while being a Giant. 

That all floated away with one announcement on a Thursday afternoon. Harper had chosen the Phillies, and Zaidi and the revamped front office got back to more normal work. They passed on guys like Adam Jones and Carlos Gonzalez, preferring to leave right field open for experimentation. Over time, that led to an outfield that now is anchored by Dickerson, Yastrzemski and Kevin Pillar, with a right field situation that has been hit or miss. 

[RELATED: Yankees' Camden Yards HR record shows Giants' lack of power]

Overall, the Giants have a .707 OPS and 13 homers out of right field, but their preferred choice right now -- Yastrzemski -- has been far better. The rookie, two years older than Harper, has a .793 OPS and 10 homers in 216 at-bats. By OPS+, which adjusts to ballparks, Yastrzemski (108) has been pretty close to Harper's production (115). Harper, who has more than twice as many plate appearances, has a wide edge in WAR (2.6 to 0.9), but then again, he's getting paid about 45 times more than Yastrzemski.

It's that final fact that makes the brief Harper chase an outlier. He would have been the opposite of everything else this front office has done, but as the Giants watch him this week, many will still feel it would have been worth it. 

They knew Harper would not outplay his contract like many of their recent finds, but they also knew he would provide consistent value on and off the field and might have made the difference in Bochy's final season. It's a what-if game they'll be playing at Oracle Park for years to come. 

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