The trade late Friday afternoon rocked a baseball industry getting ready to shut down, more or less, for the long Christmas weekend. It sent Puig, Kemp, pitcher Alex Wood and reserve catcher/third baseman Kyle Farmer to Cincinnati for pitcher Homer Bailey and two minor-leaguers. The Dodgers also included $7 million in the trade.
But at least for the Dodgers, the deal was less about adding or subtracting talent and more about clearing space. With the payroll savings the Dodgers gained in the trade, they are positioned to make a major addition — with Harper, the 26-year-old outfielder late of the Washington Nationals, a logical target — without exceeding the 2019 luxury tax threshold of $206 million.
It also loosened the Dodgers’ outfield logjam, clearing room for the addition of a new everyday right fielder. Again, the ideal candidate would look a lot like Harper — who is seeking a lengthy contract that could threaten or exceed Giancarlo Stanton’s $325 million extension with the Miami Marlins in 2014 as the largest in North American sports history.
The Dodgers’ willingness to make that sort of history is another question, one that has consumed much of the industry discourse regarding Harper’s market — even before Friday’s trade. As is well known by now, the Dodgers, under president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman, have uniformly stayed away from major outside free agents — spending most of their money on re-upping their own stars, such as Clayton Kershaw, Kenley Jansen and Justin Turner.
But the Dodgers’ advantages in the Harper sweepstakes are many, ranging from their financial might to their rich history to their relative proximity to Harper’s Las Vegas home. The Dodgers’ hypothetical entry into the bidding has been viewed throughout the industry all along as a game-changer.
Plenty of insiders have speculated that the Dodgers, with their aversion to long-term financial commitments, may wade only halfway into those waters, offering a shorter term deal than what Harper is seeking — perhaps four or five years — at salaries that could exceed Zack Greinke’s Arizona Diamondbacks contact for the highest average annual value (AAV) in history. Greinke’s six-year $206.5 million deal averages $34.4 million per season.
Either way, Friday’s trade makes a run at Harper more feasible. The Dodgers now have a manageable number of outfielders on their roster, with Joc Pederson, Chris Taylor and Cody Bellinger returning from last year’s National League pennant-winning team, plus utility man Enrique Hernandez and top prospect Alex Verdugo likely to be in the mix as well.
The Dodgers’ return from Cincinnati in Friday’s deal is unlikely to alter their 2019 plans. Both of the prospects they received, right-hander Josiah Gray and shortstop/second baseman Jeter Downs, while highly regarded, are years from the majors, and the Dodgers were likely to release Bailey, the veteran right-hander once considered among the best young pitchers in the game but more recently ranking among the worst.
Having boosted their farm system with the additions of the two former Reds prospects, the Dodgers could also turn around now and spin off some minor-leaguers in another trade for a piece such as Cleveland Indians pitcher Corey Kluber or Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto.
The Reds, despite last year’s last-place finish in the NL Central, have begun to build up their roster and payroll this winter. Last week, they traded for Washington Nationals right-hander Tanner Roark, and Friday’s trade gives them another solid starter in Wood, and two outfielders, Puig and Kemp, coming off 20-homer seasons in 2018 — all three of them in their walk years in 2019. Puig, the mercurial right fielder, will be reunited in Cincinnati with his former hitting coach in L.A., Turner Ward.
But for all the moving parts and all the surface-level roster considerations brought about by Friday’s trade, all anyone is going to be talking about in its aftermath is someone whose status, at least officially, remained unchanged. Bryce Harper remains a free agent, his home for 2019 and beyond still unknown.
That home still might not wind up being Los Angeles, but that possibility has riveted the sport, and with Friday’s machinations there is now a clearer path for it to happen.