When the Los Angeles Dodgers traded Adrian Gonzalez, Brandon McCarthy, Scott Kazmir and Charlie Culberson to the Atlanta Braves in Saturday’s post-winter meetings stunner, they offloaded $47.5 million in payroll. They are now projected to hover comfortably below the 2018 Competitive Balance Tax threshold, something that could change with in-season additions but probably won’t. If the Dodgers stay under the CBT threshold this season, they can pursue the vaunted 2018 free agent class without fear of major CBT penalties in 2019. In other words, if the Dodgers stay under the CBT threshold ($197 million) this season, they can go all-in on Bryce Harper.
The New York Yankees made a similar move this week, offloading Chase Headley’s contract to the San Diego Padres and effectively remaining payroll neutral on the acquisition of Giancarlo Stanton by moving Starlin Castro’s contract in that deal, too. After eclipsing the CBT threshold in every year of its existence, the Yankees appear ready to make good on their stated goal of dipping below that mark this year. If they do, the escalating penalties written into the latest Collective Bargaining Agreement will reset. Instead of massive taxes on overages in 2019, the Yankees’ penalties will reset to the minimum, much like the Dodgers’ will if they stay below the threshold.
Simply put: The two biggest spenders in baseball will have the money and tax room to leap into the chase. The Yankees seem like a more natural fit for Manny Machado than his fellow beltways superstar Harper, and some wondered whether the acquisition of Stanton eliminated them from contention for Harper. But multiple people in the industry recommended that no one rule out the Yankees in a Harper pursuit. Now, no one can cross off the Dodgers, either.
Asked about the apparent arms race, Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo held to the message he has maintained since questions about Harper’s future arose last winter. The Nationals would love to keep him. The Nationals will try to keep him. The Nationals cannot control what other teams do in their pursuit.
“I think everyone positions themselves; everyone’s got their long-term plans. We’re no different,” Rizzo said. “We try to focus in on ourselves. We’ve got a strategy in place. We’ve got a blueprint to be good for a long period of time. And that continues.”
The Yankees always seemed like a landing spot for Harper, who chose 34 as his jersey number because three and four add up to seven, the number on Mickey Mantle’s uniform. The Dodgers continue to seem a natural fit. His close-knit family lives a few hours away in Las Vegas. His father, Ron, can be seen behind the batting cage almost every time the Nationals play at Dodger Stadium. His family knows former Dodgers great Steve Garvey well, and Harper has always had an interest in the biggest stages. Celebrities pack the Dodger Stadium stands, and the Dodgers are one of the most storied and well-regarded franchises in the sport.
Details like that will provide the basis for endless amateur analysis over the next 10 months or so. Does the fact that Harper’s dog is named Wrigley mean he wants to join his friend Kris Bryant in Chicago? Did the Dodgers make that trade specifically with Harper in mind? Do the Yankees still want him? If any of those teams pursues him, does it even matter how much the Nationals offer? Can the Nationals even compete with the offers those teams will make?
These answers won’t come swiftly. But what has become clear this week, as the Dodgers and Yankees shed payroll as eagerly as they usually add it, is that the Nationals will probably have all the competition for Harper everyone always thought they would.
Read more baseball coverage: