Opinion Pieces

Baseball’s Billion Dollar Man

Anyone ever wonder what half a billion dollars looks like these days?

With what the ever-changing financial landscape has been like lately, it may be difficult to envision with such a vast selection of options. There are precious metals like gold, new age crypto currency such as Bitcoin, and the good ole fashion dollar.

Then there is Bryce Harper.

The right fielder for the Washington Nationals may be in his final farewell season wearing the D.C. red (and on occasion the blue stars and stripes) as he enters the final season of his contract and is destined for a free agency odyssey. Harper and the Nats agreed to a one-year contract extension in May of 2017 to ensure both parties avoided in-season distraction and stressful offseason negotiation or arbitration.  

But is Bryce Harper, the MLB bad boy who wants to make baseball fun again, really worth half a billion— $500 million— dollars? Is Harper the best store of value for a team and city desperate to see a return of nothing less than a World Series Championship?

That contract extension increased Harper’s year over year salary by 58.71 percent from 2017 to 2018. By examining Harper’s jumps in salary, there is significant evidence for extrapolating Harper’s new salary in the next 10 or 12 years. Remember this was a brash Las Vegas kid that busted into the bigs at 19 for five hundred thousand dollars while most of his peers were sinking into college debt.

Do the math. That means Harper’s salary has grown by an obnoxious 4,225 percent in six seasons. Not even the smartest, luckiest investors ever see that return; and until now, there has just simply not been an asset quite like Bryce Harper. His salary from 2013 to his first MVP year in 2015 increased 25 percent (400 percent from his 2012 rookie year), doubled from 2015 to 2016, and has increased 332.5 percent from that MVP year to this current season.

He’s young, talented and a barrel full of fun, fury and fire when he steps inside the grassy diamond. To sign the best baseball prodigy at 26—assuming that it takes place after the postseason and his 26th birthday— and have that raw talent that is still two to four years away from his peak prime age is a unique opportunity.

Ponder for a minute how much money each team squanders on players who are past their prime or believe that they will continue to produce at an exceptional rate after a breakout year. Hell, Washington already set the precedent by signing Jayson Werth to a seven-year, 126-million dollar contract in 2011 just to prove to the rest of the MLB that they were serious contenders in free agency alone. The return on that investment was four NL East division titles, four excruciating NLDS playoff exits (three via Game 5 heartbreak), and the first ever Teddy Roosevelt Presidential race victory.

Werth was signed at age 32, with a history of wrist injuries and sure enough broke his wrist in left field the same evening where Harper was drilled by Cole Hamels and then stole home on Sunday Night Baseball. In three of his seven seasons, Werth played in 88 games or less earning 21 million dollars in two of those seasons and 13 million dollars in the other. On the other hand, Harper has not appeared in fewer than 100 games in any of his six overlapping seasons and hit 46 more homers, 38 more RBIs and a batting average better than 22 points than Werth.

Plus, Harper has been an All-Star five of his six seasons all before age 25. If baseball’s mega deals are based 77.2 percent on potential, 17.8 percent on past performance and five percent player brand then Harper is right on track to be baseball’s half a billion dollar man.  

Other MLB contracts have been more expensive and much worse than a potential Harper 500 million-dollar bonanza. After his World Series championship in 2011, Albert Pujols signed a 10-year, 240 million dollar contract with the Los Angeles Angels at age 32. Therefore when that contract expires in 2021, Pujols will be making 30 million at age 41. In contrast, 2021 would be Harper’s tenth season in the majors at age 28, nearly 14 years Pujols’ junior with the possibility of being at least 14 times more productive.

Would Harper not be justified in making 10 or 11 million more at that point? Seems plausible.

There are examples to the umpteenth power of poor executive contract decisions and a few of them are players that Mike Rizzo and the Nationals have let walk away. Ian Desmond signed a five-year, 70 million dollar deal with the Colorado Rockies as an error-prone 32-year old shortstop and Jordan Zimmerman signed a five-year, 110 million dollar deal with the Detroit Tigers.

The incredible foresight by Washington’s front office to allow these two and other players to walk, combined with their smooth maneuvering at last year’s trade deadline, and developing prospects may be their downfall in future negotiations with Harper and his agent Scott Boras. The concern is that there is a certain amount of hubris when staring down the barrel of Boras’ high asking price. The front office has seemingly done everything right when it comes to letting players leave: Werth, Desmond, Zimmermann, Matt Capps, and Michael Morse just to name a few.

Still, the Lerner family is no stranger to spending money, and a ton of it. After all they brought in Max Scherzer in 2015 on a seven-year, 210 million dollar deal and then re-signed Stephen Strasburg last season to a seven-year, 175 million dollar deal. With those two contracts and Werth’s in 2011, the Nats can claim three of the top 60 contract deals in professional sports history. The also gave Ryan Zimmerman a six-year, 100 million dollar contract extension in 2012, which is often heavily criticized based on Zimmerman’s shoulder troubles at third base that forced his move to first.

The point is for however good the front office is in picking their spots in letting often beloved players leave their organization, they are also not afraid to spend money. And they have shown the ability to spend money on a) talented players in the prime of their careers and coveted by the baseball world and b) on players to make a statement to their fans and the rest of the MLB. With Harper, the Nationals have an opportunity to offer a contract that both locks in a superstar player in the prime of his career and makes a statement to just about everybody that they intend to be a force to be reckoned with.

Harper is a commodity and the Nationals need to be strategizing in investing in the futures of his still surprisingly young career. Being paranoid about the cost per season during the waning years of Harper’s career (under the assumption that he stays healthy) is like not spending the extra money to ensure that your internet never goes out or not shelling out for a parking spot and being forced to check the meters every few hours.

It seems that the investment—or gamble depending on your point of view— on Harper may as well be worth the half a billion dollars. Harper is a national phenomenon, never had a 100 RBI plus season and has already won the league MVP at 22 years old. The Nats have not been close to sniffing October baseball without Harper, even if they wish they could have gone further each time.

Entering this week, Harper had more home runs (six) than the Reds, Dodgers, Rays, Marlins, Tigers and Royals. He has just as many dingers as the rest of his Washington teammates, and for a short time the Mets after he sent a first inning bomb off a Matt Harvey on Sunday night. Harper deposited a 93 mph center cut fastball from the Dark Knight into the right field bullpen that cut through the 44 degree D.C. air at 102 mph.

Through the first 10 games of the 2018 season, Harper has 10 hits, with six of them leaving the ballpark. He has 12 RBIs; 16 walks compared to only five strikeouts; and a slash line of .345/.553/.966. Harper also has an OPS of 1.519; in fact, he is the all-time leader in career April OPS (1.097). The Nats will be looking for the same, if not better, stats in the hot summer months and then in the October postseason to justify the checks they could potentially be signing for the next 10 to 12 years.

Then again, Harper could go somewhere else besides D.C: Chicago, New York, or LA. It is unclear of his motivations at this point, since he has not addressed the topic as of yet. Money, championships and clubhouse compatibility will all be factors in making a final determination to be certain. Legacy will be vitally important to consider as well, however, all baseball fans are left to do now is guess.

Guess what might be and what is yet to come. Guess about the greatness that is yet to dawn across the baseball world. Guess about the continued health and effectiveness of Harper as he ascends to his prime and into his early thirties. And the where won’t be known until after a new champion is crowned. Could it be Harper’s Nats?

All too often the future is zeroed in on, while the present floats away. The good times, especially for baseball fans in the nation’s capital, are here now. Washingtonians do not want to be left saying what could have or should have been by the year’s end.

Therefore, we at Off the Wall Baseball look forward to covering a potential historic and final season for Bryce Harper in Washington D.C. for the Nationals. Diving into stats, financials and negotiation strategy, and other free agency mega contract decisions throughout history. There are two things we know for certain:

  1. Bryce Harper has an opportunity to become the best baseball player ever and…
  2. Harper is easily, without a doubt worth a billion dollars.

The only questions left to play out are how will Harper perform in his contract year, where does he want to play; and who will make him that half a billion dollar offer?

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