When does Harper become eligible for free agency?
After the 2018 season. After this current season, he has three more seasons in a Nationals uniform before he’s eligible for free agency.
When would the Nationals negotiate a contract extension with Harper?
Probably after this season. Generally, the closer a player gets to free agency, the less likely he is to sign a contract extension.
In recent history, Mike Rizzo has attempted to sign players to contract extensions two years before they’re eligible for free agency (examples: Desmond, Zimmerman, Zimmermann). If Harper finishes this season how he started, however, there will be no reason to wait. If Harper gets 2 years away of free agency, there may be no turning him back. Just a hunch.
How many years would a Bryce Harper contract extension be?
Best guess: 15 years. Harper signed a 2-year contract last offseason, so any extension would cover his last 2 years of team control in 2017-18, plus an undetermined number of free agency years. But how many?
Harper is unique in the modern era in that he’s likely to be an elite player reaching free agency at the age of 26. Compare Harper to last elite player to hit to the free agent market, Robinson Cano, who did so at age 31. Also consider the young player Harper has most been compared to lately, Kris Bryant. Bryant didn’t make his MLB debut until this season at age 23. Under baseball’s current arbitration rules, Bryant won’t hit the free agency until age 30.
Harper’s situation is doubly unique considering a hitter’s prime is usually considered to be the seasons between ages 26-32. Ordinarily, teams pay for the tail end of someone’s prime (like in the case of Cano and Bryant), and then a few decline years, depending on how great the player is. For players like Cano, teams have been willing to overpay well into the twilight years, content they’ll be getting a few years of that player’s prime. Cano was signed for 10 years until his age 40 season. If Harper were a free agent, the team signing him would be getting his entire prime. If a team was willing to pay Robinson Cano until he’s 40 just to guarantee a few years of his prime, it’s hard to imagine what a team would be willing to pay for all the seasons of Harper’s.
The best comparison right now is Giancarlo Stanton, who signed a mammoth 13-year, $325 million contract last offseason. The Marlins bought out the last two years of Stanton’s arbitration years and then the first 11 of Stanton’s free agency years. Stanton would have become a free agent at age 27. He’ll now be in Miami until he’s 37.
The Nationals would likely need to pay Harper through at least age 37 and probably age 38, too. That would be 13 possible free agent years plus 2 years of arbitration totaling a 15 year contract. Other players have been signed long-term through age 40, Cano or Miguel Cabrera for example. But those players were considerably older than Harper. The above-outlined contract extends Harper 16 years into the future. Nobody has done that before, and it’s hard to imagine an MLB team going further.
How much money would it take?
This is the crazy part. The free agent years of Giancarlo Stanton’s $325 million extension are actually at a discount at an average annual value of just over $27 million a year. Miguel Cabrera, Max Scherzer, Mike Trout, and Clayton Kershaw have all recently signed for an average annual value above $30 million, which appears to be the current market value of an elite player. Assuming Harper finishes this season like he started it, he’ll line up for a comparable average annual value as well. But here’s the thing. Kershaw’s, Trout’s, Scherzer’s, and Cabrera’s contracts expire in 2020, 2020, 2021, and 2023, respectively. Using the above timeline, Harper’s extension would run through 2031. Factoring in inflation, Harper’s average annual value would far exceed even what Mike Trout—the undisputed best player baseball–was guaranteed in what would have been his first year of free agency under his current contract extension ($34 million). For Harper, $40 million a year is safe benchmark, and based on the rising salaries in recent baseball history, I can’t go below it. Even using the current standard metric to determine free agent salaries, $6 million per Win Above Replacement (WAR), $40 million a year is a bargain. Harper, one third of the way into this season, has just above 4 WAR. Even if his hitting levels off (it will) and he finishes with 7-8 WAR, Harper gave the Nats $42-48 million worth of “value” this season.
What’s the total?
An average annual value of $40 million for 13 years equals $520 million. Adding in Harper’s final two years of arbitration (estimated at $15 and $25 million), my best guess for Harper’s contract extension is 15 years and $560 million.
Would Harper do it?
It has long been assumed that Scott Boras will take Harper to free agency, because Scott Boras usually takes his clients to free agency.
But look at that number again.
Boras normally takes his clients to free agency because he correctly measures the market and determines it’s the best way to get the best value. As crazy as it sounds, MLB teams’ profits are still outrunning player salaries in growth, and they have been for a long time. Boras knows this, which is why he wants 30 profitable teams bidding for his clients. Boras doesn’t want his clients to sign for market rates. He wants his clients to reset the market.
In that spirit, $560 million resets the market, does it not? Normally teams sign players to below market extensions in exchange for giving the player security and certainty. Harper is unlikely to make such a trade. He’ll need tomorrow’s prices today. If the Nats offer it, Boras isn’t above asking his client to accept it.
On the other hand, Harper would be attaching himself to the same team for his entire career. This begs the question: does he want to play his entire career in DC? Harper is a self-professed student of the game, who understands the value of wearing one uniform his entire career. The student of the game argument works both ways, however. What baseball history enthusiast wouldn’t want to wear the Yankee pinstripes or play in Fenway Park or Wrigley Field every day?
Even if the Nats offer Bryce free agent money before free agency, he’s still trading the right to choose his baseball legacy. That might be the determining factor.
One huge caveat: Boras often works opt-out clauses into his free agent contracts. Opt-out clauses allow players minimize their risk if player salaries continue to rise. The Nationals have never given an opt-out clause, but it would probably be a condition of re-signing Harper. Stanton’s contract had one, for what it’s worth.
Would the Nats do it?
A qualified yes. The Nationals don’t have the revenue streams (yet) of a big market team, but they’re not afraid to spend money. Remember that the Nationals just offered the biggest free agent pitching contract in MLB history last offseason. They also weren’t afraid to reset the free agent outfielder market by signing Jayson Werth in 2011. The Werth contract looked crazy back then, but compare it now to the Shin Soo-Choo contract last offseason (7 years/$130 million). The Nationals didn’t misread the market on Werth, they were just ahead of it. If you still think the Jayson Werth contract was a “big contract” you haven’t been paying attention the past couple of years. Once David Price and next year’s free agent pitchers begin signing next year, Max Scherzer’s contract won’t look so large either.
At the same time, the Nats have been positioning themselves financially. They walked away from negotiations with Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmermann when both demanded more money the Nationals were comfortable paying. They haven’t even attempted negotiations with Stephen Strasburg or Doug Fister, to my knowledge. They traded Tyler Clippard instead of trying to re-sign him. The lesson isn’t that the Nats are cheap (Scherzer disproved that). The lesson is they’re only comfortable throwing money at places where money should be thrown.
If you’re going to spend money, Bryce Harper is the player you pay. The primary reason: age. It’s rare to see a free agent hit the market so young. The same reason he’ll be so expensive is the same reason he’ll probably be worth it. By signing Harper, even for the insane amount of money listed above, you’re guaranteeing the prime of a likely Hall of Famer. Something like that is priceless. Almost.