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.