Bryce Harper, a National League MVP at 23, is a free agent at 26, peddling his services in an industry that’s grown to nearly $11 billion in annual revenues. His combination of skills, age and marketing cachet make him an excellent fit for any major league franchise.
Even the Baltimore Orioles.
Harper, who has 184 career home runs and a lifetime .900 OPS, rejected a 10-year, $300 million contract offer from the Nationals in September, and is a good bet to set a new standard for the most lucrative contract in North American sports history.
It’s taken weeks – and will possibly require several more – for that process to play out. In the meantime, USA TODAY Sports will examine why every team could use Harper’s services – some more than others, certainly some better-equipped to procure them.
A case for Harper and the Orioles joining forces:
On the field
In theory, it would be such a devilish move: The Orioles squiring Harper up the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, away from the team with which they’ve sparred in court over TV rights and whose very existence they opposed more than a decade ago.
Sure, the Nationals-Orioles dynamic lacks the palpable intra-city fervor that a Mets-Yankees or Cubs-White Sox cohabitation produces. It’s more of an undercurrent, borne of owner Peter Angelos’ blockade of the D.C. market way back in 2004 and subsequent re-litigating of a TV agreement meant to mitigate the effects of lopping off the southern portion of his territory for the Nationals.
In the nearly 15 years since, both clubs have made the playoffs and the Nationals have settled firmly in the top third of Major League Baseball when it comes to on-field prosperity, revenue and, of late, the willingness to spend money to keep it that way.
It was Harper – along with fellow No. 1 pick Stephen Strasburg and initial free agent splash Jayson Werth – who planted the Nationals’ flag firmly in the DMV. Now, after four playoff appearances in six seasons and an ever-growing and wiser fan base, there’s a sense the Nationals would be just fine off the field should their homegrown superstar depart.
Meanwhile, the Orioles have, it seems, felt the effects of getting hemmed in by the Nationals in the south, with the Phillies just a couple hours’ drive to the north. Oh, chronic mismanagement certainly hurt: Baltimore did not win more than 74 games from 2005-2011 as the Nationals floundered in their early years in Washington.
Three playoff appearances in five seasons recharged Baltimore as a baseball town, but attendance began waning even as the 2016 club rallied for a wild-card spot. The civil unrest after the 2015 death in police custody of Freddie Gray resulted in one game played before no fans.
While it’s unclear how large a role that played in fans staying away from Camden Yards, attendance dipped one season after the club launched a run to the ALCS and again during the ’16 playoff year.
In 2018, the bottom finally fell out: 115 losses and just 1.5 million fans coming to Oriole Park, the franchise’s lowest total since 1980.
How, then, to rebuild that base?
Off the field
Winning is the easy answer to that question, but as noted above, it’s not a panacea. It’s also challenging weighing all the factors in the massive fan drain – the many hopeless seasons, the failure to build a sustainable, winning organization, the presence of the Nationals.
Nielsen ranks the Washington market sixth in the USA, with more than 2 million TV homes; Baltimore ranks 26th, with just more than 1 million. While the Nationals’ presence is little threat to the Orioles’ base, it is in the micro-markets where the effect is felt, in southern Maryland counties like Anne Arundel, Montgomery and Frederick, where pockets of fans find themselves equidistant to Nationals Park and Camden Yards.
Oh, it’s not a massive swath of supporters in play, but when your market is as small as the Orioles’, losing these fans is a disruption to the ecosystem.
Where kids in that area once grew up wearing Cal Ripken jerseys, they’re more likely now to sport Harper’s No. 34. Would taking that No. 34 up north flip a few “swing voters” back to the Orioles?
Sure. But as we noted, the Nationals’ ability to build a sustainable baseball operation will keep many of those fans in their tent. Meanwhile, the Orioles face a massive task: A top-to-bottom rebuild of an organization that lost 115 games at the major league level last year – while also sporting one of the weakest minor-league systems.
New GM Mike Elias will have a wide berth as he and top lieutenant Sig Mejdal try to sprinkle some Astros magic on a franchise largely stuck in baseball’s Dark Ages the past two decades. It is going to take some time to get it right.
It’s also unclear how much a franchise player in right field can dress up what figures to be an ugly product for several years – even if Harper is still in his prime when the new regime’s moves might start paying dividends.
Can they pull it off?
With a franchise valued at $1.2 billion and more than $250 million in annual revenue, according to Forbes, the Orioles have the cash to pay Harper. Heck, the expired or traded contracts of former stalwarts Manny Machado and Adam Jones total $33 million, roughly the salary slot Harper might command.
While Angelos’ Orioles tend to practice austerity, it’s worth noting he did lavish a seven-year, $161 million deal on slugger Chris Davis, who by many measures was baseball’s worst hitter last season. Waiting out that deal – which expires after the 2022 season – and waiting on a rebuild will likely prevent major expenditures in the meantime.
That said, a serious retreat will further dent TV ratings and attendance. While it’s foolhardy to think Harper or another gate attraction could stanch all those losses, it’s also worth noting that the greater the losses, the longer it will take to rebuild the base.
Will it happen?
Goodness, no. Harper will want to play for a team with at least the appearance of winning soon, and the Orioles lack the cash on hand other teams may have to blow him away financially in exchange for weathering a few years of a rebuild.
Oh, it’s tantalizing to think how many home runs Harper might rip in Camden Yards – along with a few other hitter-friendly AL East parks. Yet, the dig here is far too big.
Even if the Orioles might be tantalized by taking back a chunk of their old backyard.