By Sweeny Murti
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When Bryce Harper wins the NL MVP award on Thursday night he will officially have the hardware that puts him right alongside Mike Trout as the best player in the game. Think of it along the lines of Barry Bonds and Ken Griffey Jr. about 20 years ago,
And it will also start the countdown to the day Harper becomes a Yankee. Seriously. Is there any doubt?
Let's go back two years when the Yankees drew their line in the sand with Robinson Cano at seven years, $175 million. Cano was over 30 and didn't have any of the shiny trophies the Yankess wanted to see if they were going to dole out more than that. Well, Harper already has a Rookie of the Year on his mantle and now will have at least one MVP. He will have the chance to add a couple more, as he's under the Nationals' control through 2018.
But that's where the Yankees come in. How long are we supposed to believe they will shop in the bargain aisle? This is a match made in money. Always remember what 16-year-old Harper said about his career ambitions as a Sports Illustrated cover boy in 2009:
"Be in the Hall of Fame, definitely. Play in Yankee Stadium. Play in the pinstripes. Be considered the greatest baseball player who ever lived. I can't wait," he told the magazine.
I also vividly remember Harper ogling Yankees batting practice before a spring training game a few years ago. Every other member of the Nationals was off the field, except Harper. He kneeled on one knee and watched Yankee hitters intently until being summoned by GM Mike Rizzo, who essentially told Harper it wasn't nice to stare at others, especially when they play for the other team.
Can you see this guy packing up his trophies in two years and going anywhere except New York? Come on. That's a clown question, bro.
Get younger. Get a drawing card. Get a guy to build your team around for the next 10 years. Check, check, check.
Younger. That's a key concept when we talk about the Yankees, isn't it? Do you know that Harper, who turned 23 last month, is six months younger than stud outfield prospect Aaron Judge? Harper will be 26 when hits free agency.
I asked an executive recently who had a better chance of playing right field for the Yankees in 2019, Judge or Harper. The response I got was "Judge in left, Harper in right."
Also keep in mind the Yankees have in recent years been very strategic about when they spend money, waiting for contracts to come off the books before reinvesting. And guess whose contract (finally) comes off the books after the 2017 season? Alex Rodriguez.
An offshoot of this might be that the one-year lag between A-Rod's contract coming off and Harper hitting free agency might give the Yankees a chance to get under the luxury tax threshold and reset their tax rate so they can really spend freely again. Although how exactly that works will depend on how the new CBA gets hammered out next year at this time. However you look at it, the Yankees will certainly be in position to make it happen.
Harper to the Yankees in three years. It's inevitable.
-- With the Yankees seemingly quiet on the free agent front, they are reportedly active on the trade front. Having already added switch-hitting outfielder Aaron Hicks, they could soon focus on upgrading the rotation. Reports that they are dangling Andrew Miller might reel in some controllable starting pitching so the Yankees don't have to dive into the nine-figure pitching market for guys like David Price, Zack Greinke, and others.
I asked one source about the possibility of Ben Zobrist and I was told the Yankees' focus right now is "pitching, pitching, pitching." If they are going the trade route to find it, who do they trade? Miller is one possibility, but so is trading an outfielder, and that's why Brett Gardner's name has popped up, too.
Gardner is signed through 2018 at $13 million per year. He has been a lifelong Yankee and a good one. But is he expendable with the addition of Hicks and a boatload of outfield talent in the minors?
"They have three Gardners down there," one scout told me, speaking of Yankee minor leaguers Ben Gamel, Jake Cave, and Dustin Fowler. "All three are better than Gardner at the same age. And don't forget about Judge," the scout said.
If the Yankees are truly convinced that Hicks is ready to bust through his ceiling and become an everyday player, then moving an outfielder could make sense. There has long been interest in Gardner, who became an All-Star in 2015. Brian Cashman has been reluctant to move him in years past, but Gardner might be the key to getting back the starting pitching they desire.
They also might be able to move Carlos Beltran and the final year of his contract, although his partial no-trade protection could be an issue.
-- So are there any free agents the Yankees will pursue? I still feel like Ben Zobrist makes sense, though not necessarily for the much talked about hole at second base.
Zobrist fits in a corner outfield spot if they trade Gardner/Beltran or can slide into second base if the Rob Refsnyder/Dustin Ackley combo isn't the direction they want to go.
Zobrist's versatility is key to his market as a free agent and what have we all been saying for years now about the Yankees roster and its lack of flexibility? The possibility of Zobrist, Ackley, and Hicks on the same roster creates some depth at multiple positions. It might be the type of roster flexibility that Joe Girardi covets.
-- Gary Sanchez is turning heads in the Arizona Fall League. Sure, it's a hitters' league, but that hasn't kept the scouts that have seen from raving about him.
"A man against boys" is how one scout described Sanchez after watching him tear it up in the AFL, calling him "the best hitter in the Fall League."
The knock on Sanchez has always been defense, despite his "cannon for an arm," but he's made strides there, too. Sanchez isn't being described as a great defensive catcher, just someone who has improved to the point where his defense might be adequate enough because his bat will carry him to the majors.
Sanchez is still only 22. His potential carries value to the Yankees either in their future or on the trade market. And as we've seen, what the Yankees have at the catching position has been viewed as attractive by other teams in recent years.
Over the last handful of years the Yankees have traded Jesus Montero, Francisco Cervelli, Pete O'Brien, and John Ryan Murphy. That group has helped them acquire Michael Pineda, Justin Wilson, Martin Prado (who they turned into Nathan Eovaldi), and Hicks. That's two starting pitchers, a setup man and possibly an everyday outfielder for prospects and backups.
Sanchez might be more hype. But other teams are buying the hype.
-- In case you missed it, pitchers and catchers report Feb. 8. We are officially inside of three months. Think warm thoughts. It's almost here.
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