There are more options than ever for projecting players’ performance—a slew of public systems, along with the advanced methodology behind closed doors in front offices—but projecting players’ contracts is still a tricky business. The market can change drastically from one year to the next, making it difficult to rely on past winters’ precedents; the same profile can be valued in different ways by different teams, with different needs for different competitive windows.
There’s a lot of tiny moving parts to account for. And you can go ahead and throw in, oh, a few dozen more of those moving parts for a player like Bryce Harper. Foremost? The fact that there hasn’t been any player quite like Bryce Harper. His 26th birthday was just last month, but he’s already spent years sparking debate over whether he’ll become baseball’s $400 Million Man. So… will he?
We’ll evaluate a key question and offer three potential tracks Harper’s next contract could take.
WHAT SHOULD BASEBALL EXPECT FROM HARPER?
Since 1970, 92 players have accumulated at least 20 WAR in the first seven years of their career with a 125 OPS+, per Baseball-Reference. Harper sits almost smack dab in the middle of that crew—49th, with 27.4 WAR. It puts him a few decimal points above Kevin Youkilis (27.2), and a few below Giancarlo Stanton (27.6). That’s a set of wildly different trajectories, to say the least.
Struggling with injuries, Youkilis was traded in his walk year, when he was 33. As a free agent that winter, he signed a one-year deal with the New York Yankees for $12 million. (For context: $12 million was a notch beneath that year’s qualifying offer of $13.3 million. For 2019, that number is $17.9 million.) After a continued battle to stay healthy, he was out of baseball for good after that single season. Meanwhile Stanton signed a record contract extension in 2014, after his fifth season with the Miami Marlins, at the age of 25. The 13-year, $325 million deal was heavily backloaded, a key factor in Stanton’s 2017 trade to the Yankees.
VERDUCCI: Setting the Stage for Bryce Harper’s Historic Free Agency
This isn’t to say that Harper will follow the path of either Youkilis or Stanton—not even close. It’s just to say that there’s a lot that can happen here.
There is, of course, much more to his career than just one statistic. Of Harper’s 27.4 WAR, 10.0 came from a single season. (That would be 2015; it was not only the best year of his career, but the best in a decade from any hitter not named Mike Trout.) In two of the last three years, though, he’s come in under 2.0, which is generally considered the mark to expect from a full season of play from an everyday starter. An All-Star caliber player, by comparison, is expected to bring about 5.0 WAR. Harper’s hit that figure twice: In 2012, when he was Rookie of the Year, and in 2015, when he was MVP. That’s it.
It’s easy to look at his career as a collection of inconsistencies, dotted by injuries and questions about his defense. That’s valid, and yet it elides the point: Harper’s absolute lowest point has still been pretty damn good, even if it was a far cry from the generational talent that he was proclaimed as a teen. Take 2014, his only season in which he wasn’t named an All-Star. After undergoing thumb surgery in the spring, Harper appeared in just 100 games. His plate discipline took a hit. He posted the lowest slugging percentage of his career. And he still finished the year with a 111 OPS+. In other words, Harper was 11% better than the league’s average hitter—meaning that, at his absolute worst, he was still decidedly solid. (He was also, at the time, still just 21.) At his absolute best, meanwhile, Harper has been otherworldly. His upside is as high as any player’s in recent memory. His downside is… well, at least for the immediate future, fairly sturdy, if not exciting. What kind of deal might that bring? Here’s a look at some potential pathways.
THE LIFETIME DEAL
Here’s the contract that’s been discussed as a possibility since his brilliant rookie season—big-money, long-term, market-shifting, record-setting. Harper’s long been expected as a contender to ink the first $400-million deal in baseball history, but, hey, $500 million was being thrown out there for a while, too. Think back to that set of players with 20.0 WAR and a 125 OPS+ in their first seven seasons. Albert Pujols holds down the top spot there, with 54.9 WAR—Trout ended up a few decimal points behind him—and Harper might sign a contract much like the one that he signed in 2012. The Angels inked Pujols to a 10-year, $240-million contract, just the third deal at the time ever to top $200 million. In 2018, a mere mention of that contract can be enough to send a shudder down a cost-conscious spine. Pujols’ production has collapsed since he signed, and his contract feels, more than anything, like a glaring warning of the risks that a team can face in free agency.
But Pujols’ outcome is, of course, far from the only one. Robinson Cano—29.3 WAR in his first seven seasons, slightly above Harper—signed for the same terms in 2013: 10 years, $240 million, with the Seattle Mariners. Now halfway through that deal, he’s continued to perform at a relatively high level, albeit with the expected effects of age and the ugly spotlight of a suspension for performance-enhancing drugs. It’s hard to say just how this one will look when all is said and done—the last half of the deal was always going to be rougher than the first half, to be sure—but so far, Cano’s done his fair share to live up to the deal’s standards, insofar as anyone can live up to $240 million. He’s been Seattle’s best player since he arrived, even if he hasn’t been able to help them break their playoff drought.
No, this kind of deal hasn’t been done in baseball—not exactly like this, anyway, pursued as a deliberate strategy by an elite player—but Cleveland’s Trevor Bauer, who hasn’t yet reached free agency, has talked about it. It would be risky for anyone, and it’s particularly so for a player who has a streaky track record and has battled injuries before. But if anyone’s going to defy convention and logic to place a massive bet on his own success—why shouldn’t it be a player who’s already built his career on doing just that?