ORACLE PARK — Ever since a fan inadvertently broke news via social media on Feb. 5 that San Francisco Giants President and CEO Larry Baer was at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, meeting with free agent outfielder Bryce Harper, what’s been a frustratingly slow offseason for Giants fans has gotten significantly more interesting.
“It’s kind of hard to deny it when your CEO gets made in the casino,” said president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi, when asked about the meeting at the club’s media day on Friday. “I don’t want to say too much about it. There’s obviously mutual interest on both sides, so we thought it made sense to get together.”
Harper, thought to be seeking a deal that would surpass a 13-year, $325 million contract signed by Giancarlo Stanton in 2016, has been emblematic of a slow free agent market this offseason. Adding him would be a major splash for a Giants team that still wants to add two more outfielders, and is in need of a fresh marquee name after losing 187 games over the last two seasons.
Manager Bruce Bochy was a part of those meetings with Harper, along with Baer and Zaidi.
“It was a great meeting,” Bochy said. “It was great getting to know Bryce, and I can’t tell you what’s going to happen, but I enjoyed the meeting with him. Now, we’ll wait and see what happens here. It was great for us to be able to sit down with him. We know what a great player he is. Now, we’ll see what happens.”
Harper, a six-time All-Star and a career .279 hitter with 184 home runs in seven seasons, is said to want to stay close to his hometown of Las Vegas, which would mean the Giants and rival Los Angeles Dodgers would be attractive options. Bochy would certainly welcome the addition.
“I think any manager would say that, when you talk about a player of this caliber, you can visualize a lot of things,” Bochy said. “It’s a little early to be talking about that. Let’s see what happens first.”
Shortstop Brandon Crawford, who has twice teamed with Harper, 26, on the National League All-Star team, was certainly a fan of the possibility of adding Harper.
“There’s something to be said for having that kind of leadership and experience,” he said.
San Francisco, though, has to balance the possible late acquisition of Harper with several other factors, including their own timetable. There also comes a point at which the team needs to be set, and triggers (or parachute cords) need to be pulled. As Bochy commented, this is the latest in a year he’s seen where the team hasn’t been completely set.
“You run into a chicken-and-egg debate,” Zaidi said. “When you are somebody who has multiple suitors, and one of those suitors comes to you with the attempt to exert some time pressure — I’m not one of those guys — my sense of the dynamic is, you’re not going to move just because one of your many suitors says, ‘Hey, I need to do this or move in a different direction.’ … Every team’s got to make the determination of whether they want to wait it out or whether it makes sense to move on to a different alternative.”
There is a middle ground — making additions but retaining flexibility. Zaidi still wants to add two outfielders, but outfielders who would give them roster flexibility in terms of minor league options, as well as with respect to keeping their young outfielders like Mac Williamson (who is out of options), Steven Duggar, Chris Shaw and Austin Slater.
Another factor: Money. Last year, San Francisco wanted to stay under the competitive balance tax threshold to avoid paying escalating taxes, hence then-general manager Bobby Evans trading away Andrew McCutchen late in the season. This year, they ostensibly have a bit more room to spend, and after three years of declining attendance (it was still over three million, but saw a drop of nearly 150,000 from the year before) and restless fans who so recently experienced a franchise renaissance, adding an incandescent star like Harper could be worth cracking the threshold.
“We’re not operating with hard and fast rules,” Zaidi said. “I’ve been told that we just need to make good baseball decisions.”
There are mixed reports on just how big the Giants’ payroll is for this season, but most estimates place it comfortably below the $206 million competitive balance tax threshold, between $173 million and $180 million. That would give them roughly a Bryce Harper-sized gap until they reached competitive balance tax territory, but that payroll number can shift and change over the course of a season.
“We’re taking these individual baseball decisions one by one,” Zaidi said. “There are circumstances that you might be more flexible for, and circumstances that more have to fall within the broader framework that you’ve set out for, so any time you’re talking about making a major addition that’s going to be a significant financial commitment, you may have to rework your plan a little.”
Giants pitchers and catchers report on Feb. 13 to Scottsdale Stadium in Arizona to start spring training.