Commentary: Harper at First Could Be Option for Yanks

  • Bryce Harper did not reach terms during a negotiating session with the Nationals last month. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Katherine Frey

  • Washington Nationals' Bryce Harper takes off his batting helmet after he flied out during the first inning of the team's baseball game against the Chicago Cubs, Friday, Sept. 7, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

Carlsbad, Calif. — It’s only the first full week of November, but the idea of having switch-hitter Aaron Hicks and the fading dream of Greg Bird’s potential as the Yankees’ primary threats from the left side of the plate isn’t a very comforting thought.

Hicks, fine. As for Bird, he’s already being penciled in at Triple-A Scranton, with Brian Cashman saying on Tuesday that Luke Voit has to be considered the team’s starting first baseman.

So with Didi Gregorius expected to miss at least half of next season because of Tommy John surgery, where does that leave the righty-heavy Yankees in their search to build a more balanced lineup? In our view, on the fringe of the Bryce Harper conversation, with Scott Boras continuing to push the concept of his client playing first base.

Realistically, it’s a stretch, despite Harper working out some at the position with the Nationals last season. During his seven-year career, he’s logged 911 of his 927 games in the outfield.

Pumping up Harper as a first-base option in the middle of this week’s GM meetings was a predictable effort by Boras to smoke up more business for his client, but it’s also a pitch worth listening to for the Yankees. After all, Giancarlo Stanton is primarily being used as a DH, and Brett Gardner was re-signed in more of a supporting role.

The Yankees have to be working on a way to rid themselves of Jacoby Ellsbury — another Boras client — which could then potentially free up some cash and a blend of outfield/first base time for Harper, whose powerful lefty swing would do serious damage in the Bronx. Voit was an incredible story last season, crushing 14 homers in 39 games, but can he be trusted to reprise that role as a dangerous run-producer in the middle of the order?

What if the league figures out Voit, and Bird doesn’t rebound? With that scenario a possibility, Harper is an option worth exploring, and Cashman refused to rule out the possibility when asked specifically about him on Wednesday.

“Do I think Bryce Harper can play first base? I don’t know,” Cashman said. “Obviously he’s extremely talented and athletic. As I said we’ll assess everything in the marketplace and how it might fit us. I have not talked to Scott yet but I will try to talk to everybody while I’m here.”

Boras would love to have the Yankees involved as a bargaining chip, if not a legitimate suitor, but the difference between those labels will hinge on the price tag. Add a first baseman’s mitt to his resume, and Harper becomes attractive to a wider audience.

“Well, Bryce Harper was a catcher and Bryce Harper is an elite athlete,” Boras said on Tuesday during an interview with SiriusXM’s MLB Network Radio channel. “He takes ground balls at first base all the time. And he’s very familiar with that position. Bryce could put on catcher’s gear if he needed to and go catch. The point is he can help his team in many ways as they create the best possible roster during the course of a long period of time. That’s the advantage of having a slugger who is an elite athlete.”

The Yankees’ hang-up with Harper is about the money, obviously, and they have other more pressing needs to address first — namely the rotation. Cashman re-signed CC Sabathia on Tuesday (one year, $8 million) for back of the rotation insurance, but the pursuit of top arms like Patrick Corbin and J.A. Happ could add as much as $40 million to the 2019 payroll.

That’s a serious bite, and is likely to dampen Cashman’s enthusiasm for going after Harper and Manny Machado, the latter being a very luxurious replacement for Gregorius.

Relying on Voit and a Bird revival would be a cost-efficient way to allocate resources in other areas, but those two are hardly sure things. And if Harper is too big a reach, could Cashman pivot to another Boras client, Mike Moustakas, as a lefty option at first with the benefit of occasionally spelling Miguel Andujar as a defensive upgrade at third?

At this time last year, Stanton was a distant Plan B for Cashman, who had devoted all of his attention to wooing Shohei Ohtani. When that fell through, the Yankees moved quickly to Stanton, completing the complicated deal with surprising swiftness. Something to keep in mind as Cashman surveys all of his options, with plenty still on the table.