Let’s all breathe a collective sigh of relief: Bryce Harper has found a home, agreeing to a 13-year, $330 million year deal with the Philadelphia Phillies that is the largest contract in American sports history. Before we get into the analysis, let us pause for a moment and savor the fact that we can now put the many months of Machado and Harper nonsense behind us and enjoy Spring Training and dream on the season to come (even if we’re still waiting Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel to find homes).
Unlike Machado ending up in San Diego this offseason, there’s nothing surprising here. The Phillies had been very vocal about their desire to land either Harper or Machado and spend stupid money, and after an offseason full of flirting, stupid money was spent. While that $330 million figure number is initially mind-boggling, it’s worth noting that the contract is traditional and straightforward. No opt-outs for the Phillies to worry about, full no-trade protection for Harper.
Although Harper just received the largest overall contract ever, there are other issues at work because it goes on for a baker’s dozen of years. As Harper will be with the Phillies until he’s 38 (or 39 if they make the postseason in 2031, assuming the earth and baseball still exist), the Average Annual Value (AAV) is actually lower than you might expect, at a little shy of $25.4 million and good for only the 14th highest AAV of all time. Machado’s deal carries an AAV of $30 million. The eight-year, $260 million extension that Nolan Arenado signed the other day has an AAV of $32.5 million.
The Phillies will be paying less for Harper every year than they might have, they’ll just be paying it for longer (and we’re not going to get into inflation and the fact that the contract is front loaded, but those help the team out as well). That allows the Phillies some financial flexibility during their many years with Harper, which will be important for building a team around him while he’s still in his prime, because the 26-year old still has some good years of baseballing ahead of him.
As we discussed with Machado last week, Harper is in some rarified company in terms of his production through his age-25 season. Harper comes in 41st all time by bWAR with 27.4. And while it’s not quite as impressive as Machado’s 26th place, he’s ahead of a whole bunch of impressive players, from Evan Longoria and Shoeless Joe Jackson to Orlando Cepeda and Adrian Beltre. We already went through all of this when covering the Machado signing, but it bears repeating: Harper is still very young, and he has been very good.
Personally, I think there’s might be more risk here than with Machado, given Harper’s injury history in a couple of seasons and some defensive issues that surfaced last year, and the fact that Harper’s contract goes on for seemingly forever. But there’s also the potential for more reward, given Harper’s 10.0 bWAR/9.3 fWAR MVP season in 2015. So those extra years at the end are a cost built in that rewards the possibility of a repeat of Harper’s feat from just a few years ago. Rather than including opt-outs, that would hurt the Phillies in the event that Harper does regain his former abilities, they’re committing for a very long time.
And, since we brought up injuries and defense in the last paragraph, I suppose we can’t not mention the fact, however awful, that the DH is almost certainly coming to the NL soon enough, and the latter years of Harper’s contract will allow him to play out the end of his contract there rather than in the field. Or maybe steroids will be legal or baseball will be played by robots? 13 years is a long, long time.
From the Phillies’ perspective, the whole thing works out nicely, in terms of their ability to spend money on other pieces while Harper is in his prime. Sure, it’s a virtual certainty that the end of the contract are going to see Harper overpaid ,but the lower AAV of the contract also means that they can still afford to add players, and could feasibly go after a certain Eagles fan that will be a free agent after the 2020 season. The Phillies haven’t been spending as of late, but they are historically one of the bigger spenders in all of baseball, and were a top-three team as recently as 2014. The contract is expensive, but it’s not crippling for a team like the Phillies.
The Phillies have had a rather solid offseason up to this point to, even if it would have been rather disappointing to see them walk away from the free agent store without one of the shiniest toys available. Their trade for JT Realmuto netted them arguably the best catcher in baseball. They improved substantially at shortstop in the Jean Segura trade. Andrew McCutchen was a smart move to improve the outfield and they’ve made a number of smart additions in the bullpen (which we’ll be covering soon when we do a deep dive into their entire offseason).
The addition of Harper is absolutely the piece de resistance, though. Had they failed to sign Harper (or Machado), those other moves would have been admirable, but clearly not enough in their ridiculously competitive division. Let’s err on the side of caution and posit that Harper has something in the neighborhood of a 4-win season next year (he’s averaged 4.4 f/WAR per season), rather than the MVP-level season we know he’s capable of. Those four wins are going to be extremely important to the Phillies given their location.
The Nationals are probably still the division favorites this season, even though Harper left them for a rival, and the Mets and Braves both improved this offseason. Things are going to happen that we cannot foresee, but right now the NL East looks like it’s going to be a bloodbath for the next few years. The Marlins probably have the easiest road to first-overall picks in multiple years. This is a contract with far-reaching implications.
It’s easy to forget how rare players like Machado and Harper are, and the presence of both of them in free agency at once was a true oddity. Harper has hit .279/.388/.512 for a 140 wRC+ since arriving in MLB in 2012 at the age of 19. The Phillies needed a player like Harper and it cost them a bunch of money. We’re going to have to wait a very long time to determine whether or not it will actually work out, but if any team could afford to take a risk on a very special player like Bryce Harper, it’s the Phillies.