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.