On March 2, 2019, Bryce Harper shook the baseball world when he signed a 13-year $330 million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies. This contract was the largest ever given out to any MLB player at the time and was initially viewed as an overpay by some who viewed Harper as overrated, especially after a “down” year in 2018. Of course, the Cardinals never considered giving Harper such a contract, but today, the front office and many Cardinals fans likely look back on that decision with regret. With much more lucrative megadeals given to superstars such as Mike Trout, Aaron Judge, Justin Verlander, and Max Scherzer, Harper’s contract looks more and more like a bargain.
Cardinals fans saw firsthand what Harper could do when he slugged a home run in Game 2 of the NL Wild Card Series, ending the careers of Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina in heartbreaking fashion. Harper has shown his excellence as a winning ballplayer slashing .285/.384/.633 for a whopping 1.017 OPS in the Postseason, and despite a torn UCL limiting him to DH and now first base, fans all across MLB wish their team had given Harper the same contract he signed with Philadelphia.
The 2023 season showed the Cardinals why their old spending philosophy of not going after top starting pitching talent was a mistake, leading the front office to target top starters this offseason. Bryce Harper is showing the Cardinals why their philosophy of not spending on top position player talent might also be a mistake. So surely they’ll learn from that mistake, right? When another Harper-caliber free agent hits the market they’ll be involved right? Well, no. The next generational, Harper-like free agent is available this offseason and the Cardinals have shown no intention to pursue him: Shohei Ohtani.
Ohtani the Hitter
Comparing Ohtani to Harper directly is a bit disingenuous. While Harper’s contract was the largest ever signed at the time, Ohtani’s contract will probably be over $100 million more. After all, Bryce Harper is not also a Cy Young-caliber starting pitcher. However, according to Jim Bowden of the Athletic, Ohtani may receive a very similar contract to Harper. Bowden predicts Ohtani will receive a 10-year, $477 million contract. On the surface, that's close to double Harper's AAV, but when counting Ohtani's pitching there's more to the story. A healthy Ohtani will serve as a DH all 10 years and pitch 9 of the 10 years. If we split the $477 million into 19 years, that's an AAV of around $25 million, which is less than Harper's.
With Ohtani’s torn UCL leaving him unable to pitch in 2024 and limited defensive flexibility as a DH, Ohtani will play a very similar role to Harper next year. Bowden didn't give exact numbers for his projected contract, but it's likely Ohtani would make $27 million in his first year and $50 million in each of the rest. Harper is making $26 million next year so it's a perfect comparison. Ohtani’s career .922 OPS and 148 OPS+ correspond very similarly to Harper’s .912 OPS and 143 OPS+. In his first 6 seasons in Washington, Harper posted a much lower strikeout rate, but Ohtani significantly out-slugged Harper and has shown an elite power-speed combination.
The online discourse is prevalent. "Add Harper to a lineup that includes established All-Stars in Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado, and Willson Contreras, developing sluggers in Nolan Gorman and Jordan Walker, and the ever-toolsy Lars Nootbaar and Brendan Donovan, and you have the best lineup in all of baseball." With a glove-first Masyn Winn having shown legitimate power and offensive promise in Triple-A, adding Harper provides a lineup where every starter has legitimate All-Star potential. And the same can be said for Shohei Ohtani.
Sure, it’s impossible to compare Ohtani’s success in the Postseason with Harper’s, as Shohei hasn’t appeared in a single Postseason game in Anaheim, but the 2023 World Baseball Classic has shown that Shohei Ohtani shines brightest on the biggest stage. In 7 games, Ohtani hit .435/.606/.739 to a 1.345 OPS. In 3 appearances on the mound, he shone just as brightly, pitching to a 1.86 ERA and 0.72 WHIP while striking out his teammate Mike Trout to secure a third WBC title for Japan. That is a small sample size, but the Classic cemented Ohtani as a true winning player despite not having a single Postseason appearance.
Of course, John Mozeliak and the Cardinals know the focus this offseason is "pitching, pitching, pitching" but he also noted at the Trade Deadline that the Cardinals would not "ignore a position player that is uber great." Well, Ohtani will be the best hitter available this offseason, and if the Cardinals play their hand correctly, they'll still have plenty of payroll to use on pitching if they only pay Ohtani $27 million next year. And lest we forget, Ohtani the pitcher will return in 2025.