What I’m Hearing: The Phillies will sign Bryce Harper to a massive contract but USA TODAY Sports’ Bob Nightengale explains that two other teams nearly had him locked up.
The most anticipated free agency in baseball history – a decade in the making, really – is finally over. And a tectonic shift like Bryce Harper’s $330 million agreement with the Philadelphia Phillies doesn’t just happen without some significant tremors touching so many parts of the game.
From the snakepit that will be the National League East to an entertainment capital of the world that missed its chance on landing one more superstar, Harper’s Broad Street bonanza touches more franchises than it misses.
With that, let’s take a quick look at the winners and losers – and, in some cases, both – of this baseball saga:
Winner: Bryce Harper
You don’t sign the biggest contract ever and not chalk up some kind of W. Harper surpasses Giancarlo Stanton for total contract value – Stanton signed a $325 million extension with the Miami Marlins – and will probably hold this title for quite some time. Sure, everyone expects Mike Trout to get well more than a quarter-billion dollars when he hits the market two years from now. But Trout will be 29 when he hits the market – unless the Los Angeles Angels lock him up again before then – and as we’ve seen, about a half-dozen clubs will be bidding for Trout while the rest of baseball will cling to aging curves and “value.” If nothing else, Trout now has his target.
Harper may someday count Trout a teammate, but either way, the back of his baseball card – or, if you prefer, black ink on his Baseball-Reference page – will look much, much better. Citzens Bank Park remains a homer haven – giving lefty sluggers about a 24% bump over a five-year sample – and Harper rakes there, to the tune of a .930 OPS and 14 homers, most of any road ballpark in his seven-year career.
If Harper, just entering his physical prime at 26, averages 35 home runs per year over the next six seasons – far from a stretch – he’ll be sitting on 394 career homers at the age of 32.
That will make for plenty of “legacy” moments over the final seven years of his deal as he climbs the all-time home run list as, yes, a Philadelphia Phillie.
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Loser: Bryce Harper
OK, not everything in free agency is roses. Harper got the biggest guarantee ever, but fell short in other areas.
His average annual value of $25.38 million places him just 10th among active players, well shy of Manny Machado’s $30 million he received from the San Diego Padres and Zack Greinke’s $34 million per annum from Arizona.
There is no opt-out clause, and given the 13-year term of the deal, a Little League in Chestnut Hill or Roxborough may get quite an influx of young sluggers in a decade or so.
And that’s where we realize ballplayers are, in fact, human beings. Perhaps the passage of time will reveal just how these negotations went down and whether Harper could have leapt at a big-bucks deal in Philly weeks sooner, but wanted to gauge interest in West Coast ballclubs.
The Las Vegas native won’t be playing near his home anytime soon, and it probably behooves him to hold that preference – assuming it exists – close to the vest, lest he give off the impression Philly was anything but his first choice.
In the end, the money really wasn’t that “stupid.”
Our man Bob Nightengale elicited perhaps the most recycled quote in “hot stove” history back in November, when John Middleton claimed at MLB’s owners meetings that his Phillies were ready to “even be a little stupid” about spending money this winter.
Far be it from us to determine whether $330 million is “stupid,” but this pact is actually pretty smart for Middleton’s squad.
That aforementioned $25.38 million average annual value is a virtual steal in regard to the luxury tax; the Phillies have a budding superstar who will hardly crimp their ability to acquire other elite talents, particularly as short-term commitments to Jake Arrieta and Andrew McCutchen expire.
In short: The Phillies are just getting started in going “stupid.”
Loser: The NL East
It’s not so much that Harper’s former mates with the Nationals must cower in fear that their 2012 Rookie of the Year and 2015 NL MVP will face them 19 times. It’s just that the Phillies have truly signaled that it’s on – they’re ready to hit the afterburners after going from 66 to 80 wins between 2017 and 2018.
Even with the perpetually miserable Miami Marlins at the bottom, this may very well be baseball’s Group of Death. The Nationals and Phillies showed this winter they will spend both big money and prospect capital to go for it now.
Washington will face an interesting test in seeing how much of its fan base was rooted in Harper love, rather than general Nats fandom. The on-field product should still be excellent, however: GM Mike Rizzo has wisely tied the club’s prosperity to deep and potentially dominant starting pitching. They get six seasons of Juan Soto – who benefited greatly from Harper’s tutelage – for a relatively cheap price.
The Braves and Mets also got better, but their intentions are far from clear. Atlanta’s nebulous corporate ownership never came near this winter’s big-bucks buys, despite clean future ledgers and the fact their “win curve” suggests the time may be now.
As for the Mets, new GM Brodie Van Wagenen made them better, but it’s also unclear how in it to win it the club will ever be, so long as it’s helmed by the Wilpon regime.
The Marlins? This is going to hurt for a while.
Winner: ESPN, MLB Network and MLB
Let’s face it: Two of the game’s youngest, most accomplished and recognizable stars heading to the West Coast would not have been great for business. With Harper staying on the East Coast, his greatest exploits will occur while most of the baseball-watching public is awake. His Phillies will certainly be a staple on Sunday Night Baseball, along with ESPN’s midweek offerings.
Call it East Coast Bias if you must, but both Harper and Machado playing more than 100 of their games out west – the lion’s share of those starting after 10 p.m. ET – would not have been great for the game.
Draw: Scott Boras
He wrested the “biggest contract ever” title away from agent Joel Wolfe, who got $325 million for Stanton and $260 million the other day for Nolan Arenado. Now it is Boras who again owns the top guarantee, a standard he set in 2000 with the landmark $252 million pact for Alex Rodriguez.
Yet, Boras was not able to crack $30 million per year for Harper, which is a relative stunner. He was not able to finesse the Dodgers, Padres and Giants into long-term commitments for Harper that both matched the Phillies’ commitment and mitigated the punishing state taxes in California.
Baseball is changing and Boras is doing his best to fight the hyper-optimization of the game by luring as many Middletons into the mix as possible. But the man who once could make a market out of a molehill is finding the going tougher.
Winner: Rhys Hoskins
He hit 34 home runs as a 25-year-old playing out of position. Now, he will move back to first base and hit somewhere in the abundant forest of Harper, Andrew McCutchen, J.T. Realmuto and Jean Segura. Man, whoever’s this guy’s agent is a lucky fellow.
(OK, chalk up another win for Boras).
Winner: Most of the Dodgers’ roster
Goodness, the Dodgers would have been punishing with Harper in right field, backed by a deep and diverse lineup and a pitching staff that’s about 10 strong in quality starters.
But with free agents Harper and A.J. Pollock ensconced in center and right field, that certainly would have made for quite a juggling act for manager Dave Roberts. Chris Taylor, Enrique Hernandez, Cody Bellinger and Max Muncy would have been passed around the diamond and in and out of the lineup in jarring fashion.
Make no mistake: Any team would kill to have that problem. But the Dodgers have gone to consecutive World Series with these guys as virtually everyday players. That already delicate balance won’t be upset any further.
Winner: Farhan Zaidi
Jumping from the Dodgers’ front office – which still hasn’t committed more than $80 million to a free agent – to the Giants, Zaidi has embarked on a rebuild that will surely be methodical.
But the Giants traditionally don’t roll that way. They like keeping Oracle Park full, pride themselves on the number of “meaningful” games they’ve played since moving to China Basin in 2000 and love their stars, be it Bonds or Buster or MadBum.
So here was Zaidi, forced to tag along with club CEO Larry Baer on a trip to Las Vegas this week in an effor to woo Harper, knowing that committing $300 million or so to one player while his club is years away from meaningful contention goes against everything he’s ever done.
And the Giants, according to NBC Sports Bay Area, did extend an offer north of $300 million, though they probably realized it fell far short of whatever Philly was willing to commit.
Not sure if we’d describe this as Zaidi winning a “power struggle,” necessarily. But suffice to say, Zaidi still gets to build the Giants in his image.