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What if the Indians are the Bryce Harper mystery team?

I know, but hear me out

Cincinnati Reds v Washington Nationals - Game One Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

There are “multiple mystery teams” interested in Bryce Harper, according to a reporter who has spent the last several months finding new ways to say that the Phillies are probably going to sign Bryce Harper.

That reporter is Jon Heyman, of course. And the “mystery teams” are probably made up by Harper’s agent as leverage, of course. And even if those mystery teams exist, the Indians aren’t one of them. Of course.

But, hear me out: What if.

What if Chris Antonetti and the rest of the Indians front office were repeatedly lambasted this offseason for unwillingness to spend money, only to hop out at the last second and nab the biggest free agent? What if that cheeky son of a gun really knew all along that the Indians were negotiating with Bryce Harper while he told the media that the Tribe were done spending?

Honestly, it would make a whole lot more sense than just dumping Yan Gomes to free up salary, or trading away the rest of Edwin Encarnacion’s contract, plus Yandy Diaz, for Jake Bauers — a modest upgrade over Yandy Diaz.

The Indians took advantage of a similarly caving free agent market two offseasons ago when they brought in Edwin Encarnacion on an extremely reasonable three-year, $60 million deal. It seems like nothing now, but he was easily the biggest free agent the 2016-2017 offeseason, even before Yoenis Cespedes quickly took a deal to return to the New York Mets. The Indians didn’t balk at his looming 34th birthday and paired him with Carlos Santana to help the Tribe become one of the best teams in 2017.

The stakes are much different with Bryce Harper, though. He’s not a 34-year-old first baseman about to hit the downturn of his career. Unlike Encarnacion, Harper is going to either want a lengthy deal, or an overwhelming AAV to convince him not to be the next 10-year contract guy. Regardless of how slow the offseason has been, there is going to be competition for him. Even if that’s just the filthy rich Phillies or Nationals or Giants or whoever else is bidding on his services, the Indians wouldn’t go into this alone. It’s going to cost a hell of a lot more than $60 million.

First, let’s look at why the Indians could potentially do something like this, despite previous protests from the front office.

As of last April, according to Forbes, the Indians are valued at $1.05 billion, with an estimated operating income of $31 million — and that’s before they got rid of the Encarnacion and Gomes contracts. Keep that number in minds, it’s important.

The current owners, Paul and Larry Dolan, purchased the Indians for $323 million in 2000, meaning they aren’t one of those owners who recently dumped a truckload of money for their team and are trying to get their head above water. They’ve owned the team for going on two decades now and have rarely operated in the red. By all accounts, they’ve probably made their initial investment back and then some.

Forbes is not the end-all for valuing a franchise — they’re making very savvy guesses at some things, but they’re guesses nonetheless. But if we’re going to imagine a world where the Indians are actually on the verge of signing Bryce Harper, we can take a year-old valuation at face value. It’s not the craziest thing in this article.

One important other thing to establish in this made-up fairy tale: The Indians probably aren’t bringing Francisco Lindor back when he becomes a free agent following the 2021 season. They tried in the past and he reportedly declined a seven-year, $100 deal. At this point, it’d be surprising to see him do anything but test the waters of free agency as the best shortstop in baseball entering his prime. And I don’t blame.

So, with a Francisco-less future on the horizon and somewhere between $30-$50 million to play with every year, I have an idea:

Give Bryce Harper a massive deal over three years.

This kind of deal makes sense for just about every team in the Indians’ market range. If the Indians want to be ultra-realistic with their window to win and say it ends with the Francisco Lindor’s inevitable departure, why not go all-in on a star like Harper?

Give the man something absolutely bonkers like three years, $120 million and just accept that you’re going to paying $40 million per year for the chance to win a World Series by 2021. That alone would raise the Indians’ payroll this year to around $150 million, or 10th in baseball behind the Houston Astros.

Doing this wouldn’t really explain away the Yan Gomes trade, if it was just for financial reasons. But the Indians could keep going down that route.

Maybe they’re only a mystery team hanging on right now because they are indeed still trying to trade Corey Kluber to ease the burden of Harper’s massive, albeit short, incoming contract.

Can’t find a viable way to get rid of Kluber and not get something in return? Dangle Jason Kipnis out there with a high value prospect attached to it. That right there is at least $14.5 million saved in 2019, and $16.5 million if you assume the Indians would be crazy enough to pick up his team option in 2020. That’s 39 percent of the money you owe Harper in the first two years gone already. Who cares what prospect(s) it is — you’re on the verge of signing Bryce Harper, you can deal with losing Nolan Jones.

The other difficult aspect of this is selling it to Bryce himself. He may have already accepted that he won’t get the length he wants. He may have already accepted that he won’t get to play where he wants, but he’s probably not going to settle on both. Three years clearly isn’t the desired length, and as much as I love Cleveland and the Indians I don’t think he ever envisioned himself with a Block C and chilling at Melt after the big game. To this point, the Indians haven’t been public suitors, either, meaning they probably haven’t had a big pitch to him to entice him.

So allow me to do it for them.

Even without Bryce, the Indians are projected by PECOTA to win 97 games as the second-best team in baseball. He’s virtually guaranteed a playoff spot all three years he’d be in Cleveland along with one of the best rotations in baseball, along with two of the best offensive teammates in Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez. He can spend all of the regular season hammering on horrid pitching staffs of the AL Central racking up those sweet ribbies, and be a hero in the postseason. Imagine the kind of legacy you build for yourself heading into the 2021-2022 offseason having been the guy that ended the league’s longest World Series drought?

On top of that, the current CBA — you know, the one that put him in this position to begin with — expires in 2021. If he truly believes that things will be better on the other side of those negotiations, taking a three-year deal is perfect and makes him the first big-name free agent in the new open market.

I’m not saying it’ll make sense, and I’m certainly not saying it’ll happen, but come on... Indians. Bryce. Just do it and be legends.