Why the Yankees passed on signing Bryce Harper when he was a free agent after the 2018 season is a decision that has come back to bite them. Harper would’ve solved a number of issues that still exist, particularly a lack of balance in their lineup.
Tuesday’s edition of the NY Post touched on that decision in an article by Mark Sanchez, but let’s examine the events that led up to that choice, one whose ramifications are being felt today.
What happened this season didn’t just pop up out of nowhere. This has been developing for the past couple of seasons. From 2017-2021, the lack of left handed hitting was a major reason they failed to qualify for the World Series. In 2022, another sign of things to come occurred when the team collapsed after a torrid start and nearly blew the division title, only to suffer an embarrassing sweep in the ALCS at the hands of their tormentors, the Houston Astros.
This year, the proverbial, you know what, hit the fan as this flawed Yankee team failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 2016.
During that 2016 season, the Yankees came to the realiazation that they were an aging ballclub and needed to transition to a younger team and a new era.
The Yankees, who were pegged as one of the favorites going into that season, were a game over .500 at the trade deadline (sound familiar) so they used the strength of that team (the bullpen) to swing some deals that they felt landed them some top notch prospects.
Andrew Miller was traded to Cleveland to bring back a package that included promising outfielder Clint Frazier and Aroldis Chapman was dealt to the Cubs for one of their top prospects at the time, Gleyber Torres.
The idea was to promote slugging catcher Gary Sanchez to take over for the strugging Brian McCann. Power hitting Aaron Judge would play right field, replacing Carlos Beltran who was traded to Texas at the deadline for three minor league pitchers, and Tyler Austin, who played both the outfield and first base.
Alex Rodriguez retired in August and Mark Teixeira retired after the season so the Yankees had money coming off the books. This was significant at the time because the Yankees were reportedly clearing payroll to sign Harper when he became a free agent after the 2018 season.
Harper grew up a Yankee fan who knows his history and was reportedly both intrigued and interested in playing for the Yankees. It was apparent that his lethal left handed bat was just what they needed to take the next step after they surprisingly came within one game of the World Series in 2017.
Judge was taking his initial steps towards becoming a superstar and the next team leader as he set a then rookie record of 52 home runs. The right hand hitting slugger was the Rookie of the Year in the American League while he finished second in the MVP voting, so the Yankees had their next star and needed to build around him.
Miami put Giancarlo Stanton and his enormous 13-year, $325 million dollar contract on the trade block, although he had a full no trade clause that limited the team’s options to move him.
Stanton indicated he would waive his no trade clause to come to the Yankees, so GM Brian Cashman envisioned a duo of the former NL MVP and Judge that would rival the Roger Maris/Mickey Mantle combo in 1961.
Once Stanton came on board, the Yankees felt they didn’t need to go after Harper. That is where they made a major miscalculation.
Bryan Hoch, who covers the Yankees for MLB.com. reposted a tweet from December, 2018. “Brian Cashman indicated that Bryce Harper isn’t a fit for the Yankees. Said the team already has six outfielders and that playing Harper at first base isn’t realistic.”
I counted five outfielders including Judge, Stanton, Brett Gardner, Aaron Hicks, and Clint Frazier (I looked at the roster and the only other name that fit an outfield spot was Austin. They didn’t acquire Mike Tauchman until March, 2019). The first baseman that was going to deny Harper any playing time at that spot was Greg Bird.
Judge and Stanton are the only names from that group who are still on the team. By the way, who plays first base for the Phillies now?
During his five year tenure in Philadelphia, Harper has won an MVP in 2021 and led the Phillies to a World Series berth last season.
What the Yankees failed to address at the time and what still haunts them now is a lack of left handed punch and it’s been a part of the reason they’ve failed to beat the Astros in four post season appearances (2015, 2017, 2019, 2022).
Oh, they had Didi Gregorius, Gardner and Bird from the left side. Look at their left handed numbers against the Astros in the two ALCS losses in 2017 and 2019, particularly Gregorius (1 RBI, 0 BBs, 11 Ks) and Gardner in the two series (7 for 49, 3 BB, 19 K).
Last season, they had Matt Carpenter, who was injured and trying to gut it out, and Anthony Rizzo from the left side. Houston had no fear of the Yankees left handed bats so they didn’t even put a left handed reliever on their roster.
Throughout the history of the Yankees’ 27 championship teams, there has always been impactful, left handed hitting in the lineup.
What’s done is done but how do you think Harper would’ve looked in a Yankee uniform.