There is strong speculation Mike Trout will soon agree to a contract extension with the Angels.
For Nationals fans who want to see Bryce Harper in a Nationals uniform for as long as possible, isn’t just good news. This is great news.
To understand the Mike Trout contract situation and why it matters for Bryce Harper, you have to understand baseball’s bizarre rules about service time, arbitration, and free agency. If you already understand these rules, feel free to skip the next paragraph.
With a few exceptions I won’t get discuss here, baseball players are generally under “team control” for six years after they become a major league baseball player–three “pre arbitration” years and three arbitration years. After the sixth season of “club-control” the player becomes a free agent for the first time. For players who achieve stardom early in their careers, this is usually the best opportunity for a massive payday. Robinson Cano finished his sixth season of club-control with the Yankees last season, and promptly signed a 10-year $240 million contract.
A baseball player’s prime years–for a hitter anyway–are between ages 26 and 32. This is the age range teams most want a player’s services and the ages at which a player can expect to receive his the biggest salaries. Of course, the pre-arbitration and arbitration rules are the same no matter when a player makes his major debut. Therefore, players like Mike Trout and Bryce Harper–who each made their MLB debut at age 19–can expect to hit free agency for the first time at the beginning of their “prime” years. Less fortunate players who take longer to develop in the minors, like the Nationals’ own Ian Desmond, hit free agency at the end of their prime (Desmond will become a free agent for the first time at age 30). As a general rule, the later a player hits free agency, the less total money he will receive over his career.
Alex Rodriguez was one of the youngest superstars to ever hit free agency. As a consequence, he’s earned more money than any player in baseball history, over $350 million to date.
The downside to hitting free agency so early, though, is a player would be likely to only see one big free agent contract. If he hits free agency at age 26 and signs a ten-year contract (the longest MLB contract ever given), he won’t be a free agent again until age 36, well past his prime. At age 36, a player cannot reasonably expect anything longer than a 2 or 3 year deal, at a rate well below what he would have been paid in his prime (look at Carlos Beltran’s 3-year contract with the Yankees this offseason).
Therefore, even in his best case scenario, a young superstar hitting free agency at age 26 will earn 10 years’ worth of “prime” money (his first free agent contract) and then 2-3 years of “post-prime” money (his second contract at age 36).
But let’s look at players who hit free agency later in their careers. Robinson Cano hit free agency at 31 and then signed a 10-year contract (all years at “prime” money). Albert Pujols also hit free agency at 31 and also signed a 10 year deal, also with “prime” money. Alex Rodriguez opted out of his contract at age 32 and he, too, signed a 10-year contract at “prime” money. The record demonstrates that teams will pay a player through the age of 40 at prime money if the contract begins while a player is still in his prime.
What does this mean for Harper and Trout? They are better off hitting free agency at age 29 or 30 than they are age 26. Mike Trout is wisely discussing a contract to buy out his first few years of free agency (at prime money), putting him in line to get a 10-year mega deal at age 29 or 30, which is the best time to sign a 10-year mega-deal.
If Bryce Harper follows Mike Trout’s lead and signs a Trout-like extension next year, is this good for Nationals fans? Absolutely.
Bryce Harper is not going to spend his entire career in Washington. The game has changed. Cardinals fans were convinced Albert Pujols would never leave St. Louis. Same with Robinson Cano and the Yankees. When Harper finally hits free agency, some team will be dumb enough to pay him like a superstar until he’s well past his prime. The farther that day is in the future, the better for the Nats.
So here’s betting Harper decides to stick around DC for a few more years before hitting free agency. If that thought doesn’t make you feel better, let me ask you this: would you rather have the first half or last half of a superstar’s career? The story of Albert Pujols and Cardinals should answer that question.