Bryce Harper: $400 Million Man?

Fresh off of his 2015 National League MVP season, including a league leading 9.9 WAR, Bryce Harper is one of the most exciting and talented young players in baseball. At the tender age of 23, Harper’s best years likely lie ahead of him, though his contract with the Washington Nationals will keep him off the free agent market until after the 2018 season. With 2016 right around the corner, and considering the outfielder’s potential, it’s certainly not too early to start conjecturing about the possibilities that surround his future and, perhaps, the first $400 million contract in professional sports.

To provide some background, in 2014, Mike Trout signed a 6-year, $145 million extension that will keep him locked up through 2020, the year he turns 28. Currently regarded by many as the best player in baseball, Trout’s very impressive stats on both offense and defense, culminating in a 37.9 career WAR, are both due to and embellished by his durability – Trout averages 153 games played per year. The Angels have him at what could be considered something of a bargain, and might have even given themselves an inside track at re-signing the future Hall of Famer through the rest of his prime.

Meanwhile in 2014, 25-year-old Marlins outfielder Giancarlo Stanton signed the most lucrative contract in the history of North American sports – a 13-year, $325 million extension that would, in theory, keep him in Miami for the duration of his career, this despite a precarious opt-out clause after the sixth year. In the three seasons prior to the contract, Stanton had amassed a WAR of 14.4, roughly half that of perpetual MLB WAR leader Mike Trout’s 28.1 over the same period. Questions about Stanton’s propensity for injury have also arisen, having only played more than 145 games twice in his six-year career.

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Harper isn’t the only young superstar outfielder to need a new contract in recent memory.

When drafted, players are put under team control for six years with rigidly structured contracts. While this method is not very efficient in terms of allowing the market to decide a player’s value, it levels the playing field for small market teams in pursuit of talented players and thereby intrinsically benefits the game. This model sometimes leaves high-performing young stars severely underpaid and introduces arbitration as a tool for certain players with appropriate service time to earn the money they deserve based on performance.

In the case of Trout, the Angels did make a serious investment by brandishing him with an expensive contract, but it felt more like a yearning to avoiding painful arbitration conflicts than a long-term pledge. With Stanton, the money and years that the Marlins gave him certainly grabbed headlines, but combine the opt-out clause with the Marlins’ notorious history of dumping talented players and it seems more likely than not that that contract will ultimately not be worth the paper it’s printed on.

There are several possible directions that Harper’s next contract can go. The Nationals can take the same approach as the Angels and extend him by a somewhat modest amount, thereby avoiding an unprecedented commitment. They can also follow the Marlins and make a very large offer laden with outs for both parties.

The most interesting option to consider is one that mimics the path of Alex Rodriguez, as he became a free agent in 2001. Rodriguez’s last season with Seattle yielded a slashline of .316/.420/.606, including 42 home runs and 132 RBI. While Harper has not yet had the sustained level of success that A-Rod had in Seattle, it is reasonable to expect his eye-popping (even when compared to A-Rod) 2015 campaign, in which he went .330/.460/.649 with 42 homers and 99 RBI, will serve as a sign of continued success, especially because this season, Harper at 22 actually outpaced Rodriguez’s age 22 season by more than 1.4 WAR.

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A-Rod’s career began in Mariners colors, but they were not the team that gave the then-babyfaced stud his eventual enormous deal.

Following a few outstanding years in Seattle, Rodriguez signed the then-largest contract in American sports with the Texas Rangers, for 10 years and $250 million.

In 2001, his deal earned him roughly $22 million a year, making him the highest paid player in the league. Given that Harper will likely be signing his contract 18 years after A-Rod’s, clues to its value can be gleaned by looking to the past. 18 years before Rodriguez’s monstrous deal with Texas, in 1983, the highest paid player per annum was Mike Schmidt at $1.65 million. The highest paid player in the game’s yearly salary has increased almost 15 times since. There are many factors that contributed to the explosion of player’s salaries other than time simply passing, but the juxtaposition of those two contracts is stunning. Applying these numbers to Harper’s prospective contract would be outlandish – he would end up earning a yearly salary close to the gross profits of a hedge fund.

For a more realistic approach, Clayton Kershaw was the highest paid player per annum in 2015, earning $31 million. The highest paid player in 2015 makes roughly $10 million more than in 2001, or 43%. Assuming contracts continue to rise comparatively, the highest paid player in 2019 will likely earn 47% more than Rodriguez did in 2001, an additional $12 million a year. Therefore, assuming Harper signs a 10-year deal, the total value of the contract would be around $350 million. However, because he was talented enough to enter the majors at the age of 20, he will be the same age as Giancarlo Stanton was when he signed his 13-year deal. For that many years, Harper could earn close to half a billion dollars through the life of the contract. That math does not even take into account his agent, Scott Boras, who is infamous for driving up prices for his client and creating bidding wars among wealthy and aggressive teams (paging the Yankees!). As a result, there might be a premium attached to the $35-$37 million per year contract, and  there is nothing that Boras would love more than to be the first agent to secure a contract of $40 million per year for a client.

While these numbers are staggering, they certainly come with a caveat. A-Rod was arguably the best player in the league during his three years in Texas, and they finished last in the AL West each year. Stanton is one of the most talented hitters and fielders in baseball, but the Marlins haven’t won more than 77 games since he began playing everyday. Mike Trout, possibly the best player of his generation, has only made the playoffs one time thus far in his career. Last year, the Los Angeles Dodgers had Zack Greinke and Kershaw, two of the highest paid pitchers ever, and could not make it past the NLDS – having the most talent does not ensure success any more than having the most expensive roster. The team that empties the coffers for Harper will add a dynamic, fiery, and driven player who will bring along with him a strong desire to compete and win. Unfortunately, unless the GM can properly supplement the roster with reasonably priced, effective players, Harper will continue to suffer the same lack of success he has had thus far in his career with the Nats.

by Joseph Schwartz, New York University

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