Projecting Three Different Record-Setting Contracts for Bryce Harper
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There are more options than ever for projecting players’ performance—a slew of public systems, along with the advanced methodology behind closed doors in front offices—but projecting players’ contracts is still a tricky business. The market can change drastically from one year to the next, making it difficult to rely on past winters’ precedents; the same profile can be valued in different ways by different teams, with different needs for different competitive windows.
There’s a lot of tiny moving parts to account for. And you can go ahead and throw in, oh, a few dozen more of those moving parts for a player like Bryce Harper. Foremost? The fact that there hasn’t been any player quite like Bryce Harper. His 26th birthday was just last month, but he’s already spent years sparking debate over whether he’ll become baseball’s $400 Million Man. So… will he?
We'll evaluate a key question and offer three potential tracks Harper's next contract could take.
What Should Baseball Expect From Harper?
Since 1970, 92 players have accumulated at least 20 WAR in the first seven years of their career with a 125 OPS+, per Baseball-Reference. Harper sits almost smack dab in the middle of that crew—49th, with 27.4 WAR. It puts him a few decimal points above Kevin Youkilis (27.2), and a few below Giancarlo Stanton (27.6). That’s a set of wildly different trajectories, to say the least.
Struggling with injuries, Youkilis was traded in his walk year, when he was 33. As a free agent that winter, he signed a one-year deal with the New York Yankees for $12 million. (For context: $12 million was a notch beneath that year’s qualifying offer of $13.3 million. For 2019, that number is $17.9 million.) After a continued battle to stay healthy, he was out of baseball for good after that single season. Meanwhile Stanton signed a record contract extension in 2014, after his fifth season with the Miami Marlins, at the age of 25. The 13-year, $325 million deal was heavily backloaded, a key factor in Stanton’s 2017 trade to the Yankees.
This isn’t to say that Harper will follow the path of either Youkilis or Stanton—not even close. It’s just to say that there’s a lot that can happen here.
There is, of course, much more to his career than just one statistic. Of Harper’s 27.4 WAR, 10.0 came from a single season. (That would be 2015; it was not only the best year of his career, but the best in a decade from any hitter not named Mike Trout.) In two of the last three years, though, he’s come in under 2.0, which is generally considered the mark to expect from a full season of play from an everyday starter. An All-Star caliber player, by comparison, is expected to bring about 5.0 WAR. Harper’s hit that figure twice: In 2012, when he was Rookie of the Year, and in 2015, when he was MVP. That’s it.
It’s easy to look at his career as a collection of inconsistencies, dotted by injuries and questions about his defense. That’s valid, and yet it elides the point: Harper’s absolute lowest point has still been pretty damn good, even if it was a far cry from the generational talent that he was proclaimed as a teen. Take 2014, his only season in which he wasn’t named an All-Star. After undergoing thumb surgery in the spring, Harper appeared in just 100 games. His plate discipline took a hit. He posted the lowest slugging percentage of his career. And he still finished the year with a 111 OPS+. In other words, Harper was 11% better than the league’s average hitter—meaning that, at his absolute worst, he was still decidedly solid. (He was also, at the time, still just 21.) At his absolute best, meanwhile, Harper has been otherworldly. His upside is as high as any player’s in recent memory. His downside is… well, at least for the immediate future, fairly sturdy, if not exciting. What kind of deal might that bring? Here’s a look at some potential pathways.
The Lifetime Deal
Here’s the contract that’s been discussed as a possibility since his brilliant rookie season—big-money, long-term, market-shifting, record-setting. Harper’s long been expected as a contender to ink the first $400-million deal in baseball history, but, hey, $500 million was being thrown out there for a while, too. Think back to that set of players with 20.0 WAR and a 125 OPS+ in their first seven seasons. Albert Pujols holds down the top spot there, with 54.9 WAR—Trout ended up a few decimal points behind him—and Harper might sign a contract much like the one that he signed in 2012. The Angels inked Pujols to a 10-year, $240-million contract, just the third deal at the time ever to top $200 million. In 2018, a mere mention of that contract can be enough to send a shudder down a cost-conscious spine. Pujols’ production has collapsed since he signed, and his contract feels, more than anything, like a glaring warning of the risks that a team can face in free agency.
But Pujols’ outcome is, of course, far from the only one. Robinson Cano—29.3 WAR in his first seven seasons, slightly above Harper—signed for the same terms in 2013: 10 years, $240 million, with the Seattle Mariners. Now halfway through that deal, he’s continued to perform at a relatively high level, albeit with the expected effects of age and the ugly spotlight of a suspension for performance-enhancing drugs. It’s hard to say just how this one will look when all is said and done—the last half of the deal was always going to be rougher than the first half, to be sure—but so far, Cano’s done his fair share to live up to the deal’s standards, insofar as anyone can live up to $240 million. He’s been Seattle’s best player since he arrived, even if he hasn’t been able to help them break their playoff drought.
But there’s a crucial difference between Pujols’ cautionary tale and Cano’s question mark, and Harper’s potential future. Pujols was 31 when he signed his lifetime deal; Cano was 30. Harper is 26. His peak performance is theoretically still ahead of him, with a hitter’s prime generally projected to be somewhere from 26 to 28. If a team’s ready to give him, say, $350 million for 10 years—they won’t be paying just for the back-half of the aging curve. They’ll have his projected peak, too, which means that this edition of the lifetime deal would be more likely to pay off, and, in turn, means that it’s more likely to happen, in the first place.
The Prime Time Deal
Harper’s most conventional path forward here would be the lifetime deal above—“conventional” in format, at least, if not in dollar amount. That's just how baseball’s salary structure has worked over the last two decades or so. But there’s been a shift in that arrangement over the last few seasons, and it was especially pronounced last winter. The 2017 market was essentially frozen, provoking much hand-wringing from columnists and significant tension between the league and the union.
There was some speculation that the glacial state was just a natural lead-up to this offseason’s market—which boasts not only Harper, but Manny Machado, among others. Maybe that will bear true. Maybe it won’t. Maybe it’ll be a sign of incentives that have shifted just enough to stir something different…. like, for instance, a four-year, $170-million deal for Harper?
This would still be a record deal, just in a different form. A $42.5 million average annual value would blow away the previous highest figure (Zack Greinke’s $34.4 million; for a position player, it’s Miguel Cabrera’s $31 million). Even with a record number like this one, the lack of long-term commitment would still be a sign of a market that’s becoming substantially less friendly to labor than to ownership; it’s the sort of example that could have serious ramifications for the rest of the market and the format of free agency. An AAV that sets a record by a wide enough margin, though, might be enough to sway Harper. From a team’s perspective, it could be a clear win—Harper in his prime, for the length of a franchise’s competitive window, with no long-term constraints or worries about his aging curve. From Harper’s perspective—if it’s the right team, willing to pay enough to offset the short timeframe, maybe it works, too.
The NBA-Style Deal
This isn’t at all likely. This isn’t necessarily in his best interests. But let’s entertain it, just for a second.
Harper’s coming off a down year, if only slightly. Don’t let the .249 average fool you: His power and league-leading walk rate made for a solid year at the plate. He finished the season with a 133 OPS+, compared to his career average figure of 139. If Harper decided that he wanted to bet on himself, though, and give himself a chance to enter free agency on a stronger note… What about a one-year deal, much as has become popular over the last few seasons in the NBA?
For a deal like this one to go through, it would have to be a number higher than the average annual value that he’d receive on a longer contract—say, $45 million. Does that sound ridiculously high? Consider that the cost of a win on the free agent market is estimated to be well over $10 million. If Harper’s 2019 looks anything like his second half of 2018, or his 2017, or his 2015, that can be quite the bargain for the team.
No, this kind of deal hasn’t been done in baseball—not exactly like this, anyway, pursued as a deliberate strategy by an elite player—but Cleveland’s Trevor Bauer, who hasn’t yet reached free agency, has talked about it. It would be risky for anyone, and it’s particularly so for a player who has a streaky track record and has battled injuries before. But if anyone’s going to defy convention and logic to place a massive bet on his own success—why shouldn’t it be a player who’s already built his career on doing just that?