In December of 2016, news broke that OF Bryce Harper was reportedly seeking at least a 10 year, $400 million contract as a free agent in 2018. This kind of deal is almost completely without precedent — no player has ever signed a contract worth more than $325 million, and no player has ever signed for an AAV of $36 million.
Could Bryce Harper be the first man to do it? While there is a more obvious candidate for someone deserving of the biggest contract in history (cough cough, Mike Trout, cough cough), Harper hits free agency before Trout. Trout may be the bigger catch, but Harper arrives first and could set the record.
Harper has quite a few factors going for him — the biggest being how good he is at baseball. Since his debut, Harper has a 139 wRC+, the 12th highest figure in that time frame, and comes out ahead of figures like OF Nelson Cruz, 1B Freddie Freeman, and C Buster Posey. His trophy case includes 4 All-Star game selections, a Rookie of the Year Award, and an MVP Award. He was somehow better than Mike Trout in 2015 in terms of fWAR — the only person to ever best Trout in a single season.
The largest appeal of Harper is not his talent alone, however — it’s his age. Harper will be only 26 when he enters free agency, a rarity for players who enter FA by finishing their arbitration years. Of free agents who were offered qualifying offers this offseason, none were younger than 29. Because Harper joined the majors at such a young age and stuck, Harper will become one of the youngest super-star free agents since Alex Rodriguez did so at 25.
Rodriguez’s deal is likely what Harper wants to follow. Rodriguez’s 10 year, $252 million contract was the largest in history in terms of both length and value. Adjusted for inflation, that deal would be worth ~$360 million today, making Harper’s $400 million contract not much of a stretch.
He's almost worth it, too. This article from Beyond the Box Score describes the aging curves for phenoms such as Harper and Trout, and the news is good for Harper —his production is expected to begin to decline only after his age 30 season, and only at a rate of about 0.5 fWAR per season. If one expects Harper to keep up his current pace of 5.0 fWAR/600 PA through his age 30 season, over the course of a theoretical $400/10 contract Harper would be worth ~42.5 fWAR. The going rate for one fWAR in the 2016 offseason was ~$8 million, so Harper’s production during his contract would be worth $340 million. Account for inflation, star power, merchandise, etc., and Harper’s demands don’t sound that crazy.
But Harper’s aspirations may be too lofty. For one, Harper is not Alex Rodriguez — through his first 5 full MLB seasons, Rodriguez was worth 35.0 fWAR. Over the same span of his career, Harper has only been worth 23 fWAR. Rodriguez had precedent to sign one of the biggest deals in history, but Harper is lagging far behind him in terms of production and will be older when he signs his first contract.
Harper is believed to have an incredible ceiling, which is why he was drafted so high and made the majors so quickly. However, he’s only had one season where he’s lived up to those expectations — 2015. His 2012 and 2013 campaigns were stellar (4.6 fWAR and 4.0 fWAR), but not as spectacular as the hype.
His 2014 and 2016 seasons were decidedly less than stellar — Harper batted to the tune of a wRC+ of 115 and 112 in those seasons, and was worth 1.4 fWAR and 3.5 fWAR respectively. It’s believed that injury was to blame for those average performances, but injury is still a consideration for signings — often-injured players find themselves signing for less. Harper will need some great seasons between now and free agency to silence those doubts.
One must also consider the market that Harper will enter. The 2019 FA class includes OFers A.J. Pollock, Adam Jones, Charlie Blackmon, and possibly Jason Heyward — all of them fine outfield options who will likely be cheaper than Harper’s indicated asking price. Also on the market will be impact players like 3B Manny Machado, SP Matt Harvey, SP Dallas Keuchel, and possibly SP Clayton Kershaw. With plenty of cheaper (and possibly more reliable) alternatives available, it’s tough to see a team being willing to bite at Harper’s ridiculous asking price.
And who could even afford Harper? A $40 million contract on the payroll would be equivalent to 58% of the Houston Astros’ opening day payroll. Scott Boras, Harper’s agent, has struck heavily back-loaded deals before where teams defer payment beyond the actual length of the contract. This might be the only way that a team could reasonably afford such a deal — but back-loading might just prolong the financial burden.
Harper’s ask might be intentionally massive, though. The door-in-the-face technique is a well-documented phenomenon. If Harper were on track to receive a normal contract, asking for a huge deal would make a contract larger than the one he would have otherwise received seem like a more plausible deal by comparison.
So, where could he land? Who has the money to pay him? And by what factor of ten will Trout beat Harper’s contract? It’s far too soon to tell, and two years is a large amount of time. Harper might just prove himself to be worthy of his demands — but for the moment, they may be just a pipe dream.