Spring training is underway, yet it's difficult to focus on the warm-up for the 2019 Major League Baseball season while a megastar like Bryce Harper is still unemployed.
According to Jon Heyman of Fancred, Harper is willing to remain as such until he gets a long-term contract offer to his liking:
Considering where his market is at right now, Harper should reconsider.
According to Bob Nightengale of USA Today, the San Francisco Giants are interested in the 2015 National League MVP, but only to the extent of a "lucrative short-term deal."
In other words, nothing like the 10-year, $300 million offer from the Washington Nationals that Harper rejected last September, according to Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post.
Nightengale further elaborated in a Monday interview on KNBR that the Nationals are out of the Harper sweepstakes. So are the Los Angeles Dodgers, who Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic reported in December were also only interested in offering him a short-term contract.
According to Nightengale, that narrows Harper's market to the Giants and the Philadelphia Phillies. And if the Giants won't go as high as $300 million, then why should the Phillies?
The notion that demand for a player like Harper—i.e., a 26-year-old with an MVP, six All-Star appearances, a career .900 OPS and 184 home runs—could be this low strains the boundaries of belief. But it isn't only reporters saying that it's the case.
"I talked to him the other day, and he said it's actually slower than you guys think," former teammate Shawn Kelley, now of the Texas Rangers, told Jeff Wilson of the Star-Telegram.
Alternatively, he could open himself to taking the long way around to long-term riches.
In theory, Harper is absolutely a $300 million talent. Heck, even a $400 million talent.
Players as young as him rarely hit the open market. He had perhaps the best age-19 season ever back in 2012, and he was better than even Mike Trout when he won his MVP in 2015.
As it is wont to be, reality is more complicated. Whether it's been because of injuries or him being out of sorts, Harper's offensive production has been wildly inconsistent for much of his seven-year major league career. His defensive metrics have been all over the place as well.
So it went for Harper in 2018. He put up good surface-level numbers—such as an .889 OPS and 34 homers—but he slumped for two months and he was downright terrible in the outfield. Per Baseball Reference, he was worth only 1.3 wins above replacement.
Consider how that compares to the walk years that preceded every $200 million contract found on the open market:
- Alex Rodriguez, 2000: 10.4 WAR
- Alex Rodriguez, 2007: 9.4 WAR
- Albert Pujols, 2011: 5.3 WAR
- Prince Fielder, 2011: 4.5 WAR
- Robinson Cano, 2013: 7.8 WAR
- Max Scherzer, 2014: 5.7 WAR
- David Price, 2015: 6.3 WAR
- Zack Greinke, 2015: 9.1 WAR
- AVERAGE: 7.3 WAR
Youth and upside are one thing, but the most tangible measure of Harper's present ability doesn't measure up to these cases. Nor does it measure up to that of fellow 26-year-old free agent Manny Machado, who was worth 5.7 WAR for the Baltimore Orioles and Dodgers last season.
Thus, the appeal of a short-term contract: Rather than acquiesce to teams not being willing to roll the dice, it would be a means for Harper to place a bet on his upside.
For it to pay off, Harper would mainly need his bat to do the talking. If there's a bright side there, it's that he isn't losing any of his patience or his capacity for crushing the ball. He led MLB in walks last year, and his expected slugging percentage on contact was .001 points below American League MVP Mookie Betts.
Otherwise, Harper could hope for a new collective bargaining agreement—the current one expires in December 2021—that would ideally ease luxury-tax constraints and incentivize teams to spend more.
He could also hope superstar peers reset the free-agent market. In particular: Nolan Arenado and Anthony Rendon after 2019, Trout and Betts after 2021, and Francisco Lindor, Kris Bryant and Corey Seager after 2021. Perhaps they can succeed where Harper and Machado have thus far failed.
Per Nightengale, the Giants would give Harper a five- or six-year deal at $30 million per year. He should only go for something like that if it contains early opt-outs, a la the ones in J.D. Martinez's current contract with the Boston Red Sox.
If Harper were to signal that he's open to such a deal, enough teams could line up for him to command better than a $30 million average annual value. Say, a $35 million AAV that would bump his total guarantee to $175 million or $210 million.
In any case, his endgame would be to get paid well while building up enough value to attract a coveted long-term megadeal during his next foray into free agency. If enough things break in his favor, the result may well be more than $300 million in earnings over a 10-year period.
If Harper can get there from where he's at right now, then he shouldn't hesitate to put pen to paper. If not, he may ultimately be happy that he went another way.
Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.