Why Phillies’ record deal with Bryce Harper isn’t ‘stupid’ after all

MLB-Nationals-Harper-hits-game-winning-sacrifice-fly-versus-Cardinals

Bryce Harper watches a home run. (Nick Wass/AP)

DUNEDIN, Fla. — The Bryce Harper contract was always going to be about the money.

The speculation about his earning potential began years ago and only gained momentum as Harper turned down massive contracts from the Washington Nationals on the advice of agent Scott Boras. Every step along the way, Harper seemed determined to hit free agency as early as possible and shatter records once he got there.

Now, nearly nine years after the Nationals selected Harper first overall, the intrigue has finally reached its conclusion. Harper will reportedly earn $330 million on a 13-year deal with the Philadelphia Phillies.

Good for Harper, who gets paid at a time that the free agent market can seem pretty inhospitable. His deal, which doesn’t include any opt-outs, tops fellow free agent Manny Machado by $30 million and replaces Giancarlo Stanton’s $325-million deal as the biggest in the history of the sport.

As for the Phillies, the debate over Harper’s new deal has begun already. Will it be an overpay? Would Machado have been a better investment? Why 13 years?

All are valid questions, but let’s not lose sight of some facts as we make sense of the biggest contract in baseball history:

• At age 26, Harper is younger than Noah Syndergaard, Aaron Judge, Kris Bryant and Christian Yelich.

• Steamer’s projection system forecasts 34 homers with 4.8 wins above replacement and a .927 OPS for Harper in 2019.

• The Phillies have now completed a transformational off-season by adding Harper, J.T. Realmuto, Andrew McCutchen, Jean Segura and David Robertson.

• Philadelphia’s largely right-handed lineup gained one of baseball’s top left-handed sluggers, making life harder on opposing managers.

• By signing Harper, the Phillies keep him away from their division rivals in Washington.

• If you’re spending $330 million, a 13-year deal is actually better than a 10-year deal for two reasons: the luxury tax hit is more manageable and there’s a chance Harper will remain productive as he approaches 40, in which case the club benefits.

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All of that guarantees the Phillies nothing, of course. There’s no prize for having an impressive roster on Feb. 28. But give them credit for the upgrades they’ve made since their 2018 season ended in disappointing fashion. This team looks like a legitimate contender.

Granted there’s risk here, and there’s some chance that this deal looks awful a few years from now. The Phillies know that, but as a big-market team they’re better-suited than most to take on that risk. They had committed just shy of $129 million for 2019 before this deal, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts – tens of millions less than the Chicago Cubs, Los Angeles Dodgers, Boston Red Sox and Nationals.

And with the risk comes a reward that’s pretty easy to dream on. Harper has already shown what kind of impact he can make, winning the 2015 MVP with a 10.0 WAR season. No one’s counting on a repeat from that year, but it’s still conceivable that Harper raises his career .900 OPS in the coming seasons as he enters what would traditionally be considered his prime. If that happens, the Phillies will be the ones who benefit.

Harper’s slow-developing free agency will be worth keeping in mind the next time a superstar hits free agency. Whether it’s Paul Goldschmidt, Mookie Betts or Mike Trout, we shouldn’t expect immediate resolution or be surprised if interest initially seems limited. The Harper and Machado deals suggest the game’s best players do eventually get paid.

After suggesting early in the winter that he’d spend “stupid” money, owner John Middleton would have faced a PR nightmare if he wasn’t the high bidder for Harper. Some in the industry wonder if Boras had the Phillies bidding against themselves and whether interest from the San Francisco Giants and Dodgers was overstated. Those in the Phillies’ front office are too smart and prudent to bid against themselves, but of course decisions of this magnitude are typically ownership-driven.

Regardless, it’s surprising more teams didn’t emerge as serious suitors. On paper, the Cubs, Dodgers and Toronto Blue Jays were all intriguing fits, but none of those teams appeared to make serious long-term plays for Harper.

In time, they may thank themselves. By the time Harper’s contract ends in 2031, he won’t be the same player he is today. But what he does in the meantime has a chance to be pretty special, and it’s the Phillies who stand to gain if that happens.

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