Would Bryce Harper agree to a bridge contract?

We can’t get inside Bryce Harper’s mind, but we can assume he wanted a record-breaking contract this offseason–something bigger than Giancarlo Stanton’s 13 year, $325 million contract. That still may happen, of course, but as his free agency goes on and on, it’s getting safer to assume it won’t.

Assuming it doesn’t, Harper has two options. First, he could “settle” for a long term contract that pays him less, maybe 8 years and $250 million (that’s a wild guess). Second, he could accept a “bridge contract” that would allow him to hit free agency again when the market is more favorable.

The second option seems crazy. Who would leave $200 million+ on the table? But here’s the logic.

Harper is not the only player unhappy with baseball’s current labor market. Free agent prices are not growing as quickly as the players would like them to. There’s a long explanation for why that is, but one of the biggest culprits is baseball’s luxury tax.

The luxury tax is a de facto salary cap. In 2019, every payroll dollar over $206 million can be “taxed” as high as 50%. Beginning this year, teams can even be penalized in the amateur draft for exceeding the threshold. Put simply, there’s a huge incentive for teams not to add a salary like Bryce Harper or Manny Machado.

There’s a very good chance the players union goes to the mattresses to change the luxury tax system in the next collective bargaining agreement. Players are fed up, and they want payrolls to start growing as quickly as league revenues.

The next CBA expires after the 2021 season. 3 years. We might not have any baseball in 2022, but if the players fight and win, the top end of the free agent market might look very different.

Years ago, I suggested it’s better to hit free agency at age 29 than 26. A long term deal at age 29 can secure a high salary well into your 30’s, whereas a long term deal at 26 might spit you back out on the free agent market in your mid-30s, where you don’t want to be. Maybe a guy like Harper, if he’s still hitting, could get an 8 year deal at age 29.

In the meantime, would Bryce Harper settle for a 3-year bridge contract? It would take a huge average annual value–something like $40 million a year maybe–but if the free agent landscape is likely to change in 2021, perhaps waiting it out isn’t the craziest idea after all.

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Bryce Harper and Scott Boras have already failed

Before Bryce Harper was a “once in a generation” prospect in 2010, Stephen Strasburg was called the same thing in 2009. He was the most hyped pitcher since Mark Prior and maybe even more so. When people started to speculate on Strasburg’s rookie contract, they looked to Prior as a comp.

Scott Boras looked somewhere else. He compared Strasburg to recently-acquired Japanese pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka who had just received $52 from the Boston Red Sox.

Boras had a point. Both Strasburg and Dice-K were “once in a generation” highly-projectable pitching prospects and neither had thrown an MLB pitch. Why would one get $11 million and the other $52 million because one was American and one was Japanese? That’s Boras. He didn’t want Mark Prior money plus inflation; he wanted to blow up the system. That’s his style. He doesn’t want to get his clients one dollar more than the second highest bidder. He wants every extra dollar in the owners pocket.

In the end, Strasburg got close to $15 million. More than Mark Prior plus inflation but nowhere in the neighborhood of $50 million. Boras was full of it. His bold declaration was bluster.

Some fans hate Scott Boras. I don’t. Some fans project their hatreds of modern baseball onto him. I think he’s doing his job. Players choose Scott Boras because they want every dollar they can get. And Boras usually gets it, even if he has to throw out wild comparisons about college pitchers getting $50 million contracts.

In many ways, Bryce Harper was the perfect Boras client. If Boras wants to blow up paradigms, he needs a client who operates under a different paradigm. Bryce is it. He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated at 16 (calling him “Baseball’s Lebron James”). He graduated high school two years early so he could enter the MLB draft as a 17 year old. And he got to the majors at 19, ensuring he would hit the free agent market earlier than anyone else (with multiple MVP awards, or so they planned).

Harper wasn’t just an opportunity to score another big contract. He was a chance to change how baseball players were paid. There are many nonsensical things about the modern baseball financial system. Younger players are generally underpaid compared to their value on the field. And the really young players before their free agent years are very underpaid because they have zero leverage.

Consider the possibilities that were in the table for Boras. Striking a deal before before free agency could have broke Harper free of baseball’s wage-suppressing arbitration system. Bryce could have opted for a much higher annual average salary in exchange for fewer guaranteed years. Bryce and Boras could have done something different.

Now here we are and Bryce is just another free agent waiting for a phone call. He’s arguably not even the biggest target in his free agent class. It’s entirely possible he’s waiting for Manny Machado to pick a team so he can sign for a few million less.

Harper’s free agency will end and he’ll be a very rich man. Boras, too, will get a few million to throw on the pile he already has.

But this process, which could have been something so original, so unique, already feels like a failure–no matter how many zeros are on the contract Harper eventually signs.