Twice I’ve tried to project what a Bryce Harper contract extension would like. The first time, I followed the Mike Trout model, which included the last few years of arbitration and then a few free agency years (at a high average annual value-AAV), spitting the player back on the market when it’s the best age to be a free agent. The second time, I followed the Giancarlo Stanton model, with a lengthy deal at an AAV you’d expect for a player of Harper’s skill level.
Both of those approaches have the their merit. In Trout’s case, if he continues to play at his current level–a safe bet–he’ll probably maximize career earnings. The Angels agreed to give Trout such a high AAV for his contract because it’s of a relatively short duration. Trout will cash in long term when he finally hits free agency. Meanwhile, he’ll have huge annual salaries ($34 million) for his first few free agency years already in the bank. The reasoning behind Trout’s approach is simple: it’s better to hit free agency when you’re 29 than when you’re 26. A 10-year contract at 28 is more valuable to the player. A 10-year deal at age 26 spits you back onto the free agent market when you’re a declining player, whereas the 10-year deal at 29 locks you into large salaries well into your late 30’s.
Stanton’s approach gives the player more certainty, but likely diminishes overall earnings. While Stanton’s total money, $325 million, looks huge, he’s actually giving away money on the front end of the deal. Stanton at his peak is worth more than the $27 million AAV he’s earning. Stanton has the option of opting out of his contract at age 30 and locking in another huge contract, but at that point he’s already been underpaid for three years of his prime. Stanton is essentially trading earning potential for certainty, which is a fair deal considering he’s already guaranteed himself $325 million. (Here’s a good read from the economist how opt-outs in contracts often benefit the team as well the player opting out).
Here’s my outside the box idea for a Bryce Harper contract extension. It follows the Trout model but carries it even further. Scott Boras is the type of agent who wants to make his client money, but also blow up the current market, rising the tide for every boat. The safe money right now says Bryce Harper will take his talent to free agency where he’ll get a record setting deal. But as demonstrated above, his deal may be record breaking in total value, like Stanton’s, but he may be selling himself short on total career earnings, even if the contract contains an opt out.
Bryce Harper is scheduled to hit the free agent market when he’s 26. For total career earnings, he would be better off hitting the market when he’s 29. A 12-year contract at 26 would pay Harper handsomely at a high AAV until he’s 38. A 12-year contract at 29 however, would pay him at a high AAV until the end of his career. Hitting the market at 38 when he’s well past him prime would give him a much smaller contract than whatever he could secure for himself if he were to sign a deal at 29.
So I propose giving Harper a 3-year “bridge” contract at age 26. But not just any bridge, a bridge that blows up the current market like Boras wants and resets what an elite player can expect to earn per season. One of the ironies of modern baseball contracts is that players who sign as free agents are actually underpaid in their primes (like Stanton). Players usually make up for this by locking in long term deals which are essentially back-loaded when you consider most of the player’s production comes on the front end.
Bryce Harper put up a 9.8 WAR season according to Baseball Reference and a 9.5 WAR season according to Fangraphs. The Nationals have their own proprietary WAR formula that we can assume is in the neighborhood. But to be safe, let’s round down to 9 WAR. Bryce Harper might regress next season because his 2015 was absolutely amazing. But what if he doesn’t? Why would he? He’s only 23. That’s the scary thing about Bryce. He’s only getting better. The Nats have to assume he’s worth at 9 WAR for the foreseeable future.
The market rate for free agents according to Fangraphs is $8 million per WAR, making Harper was worth $79.5 million last year to the Nationals.
So here’s my “radical” proposal: pay Bryce Harper what he’s worth. Offer him $70 million per year for three years. Blow up the market. Dare him to say no. Worst case scenario for Harper, he’s back on the market at the perfect time to be a free agent, with over $200 million already in the bank.
Paying that much money to one player per year seems like lunacy. It would be a tough pill for the Nats to swallow. But I’m guessing it would be tougher to see Bryce Harper walk away and win MVP awards for someone else.