The prospect of a MVP-caliber player hitting the free agent market at age 26 has some teams salivating. But over $400 million through 10 years is a huge price tag. It would easily eclipse the 13-year, $325 million contract the Miami Marlins awarded Giancarlo Stanton just two years ago (which still ranks as the biggest contract in North America). Could Harper justify blowing past that milestone? Maybe. Noah Frank breaks down the math.
A 10-year deal beginning in 2019 would cover Harper from age 26 through 35, well into the decline phase for most hitters. There has been plenty of debate over exactly what the aging curve looks like, but this study from FanGraphs shows us a fairly consistent pattern of drop-off from a player’s peak at age 25 down 10 percent in the first 3-5 years, 20 percent in 5-7 years and 30 percent in 7-9 years. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Those who study the subject concluded last year that teams, per the metric Wins Above Replacement, were willing to pay roughly $7.7 million per win last offseason. That is up from $7 million two years prior, and has been a steadily increasing number (roughly $3.2 million 10 years further back). If we assume that metric continues to rise at a rate of $1 million every 2-3 years, a win would be worth somewhere around $10 million on average during the course of Harper’s deal. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ That would require him to be worth 40 WAR to pay off his free market value.
The Nationals already have $87.4 million tied up in 2019 for just three players: Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg and Ryan Zimmerman. With Harper asking for over $40 million, you're talking about a payroll exceeding $120 million with just two position players and two starting pitchers to show for it.
“But if he gets $400 million, it’s hard to put together a team around him.’’
And that's the problem. Baseball is a team sport, and betting the farm on just a couple of superstars can backfire if one or more go under with injuries. A roster full of scrubs won't win the World Series. Before Stanton, the only analogous contract was Alex Rodriguez's 10-year, $252 million deal back in 2000. Adjusted for inflation, it's easy to see why Bryce Harper might think he's worth more. But A-Rod managed to help the Yankees win just one World Series championship after collecting $317 million over 13 years. It's hard to see how one player is worth so much.
"I bet you there is somebody that will give him that money. He's one of the best players in the game."
If you're a club that's looking to win a title, the prospect of paying a 26-year-old generational talent over $40 million a year is a bargain. Look at Harper's performance. He can change the trajectory for an entire franchise. The reality is that the Nationals got a ton of unpaid performance from him the last several years. Harper has earned his historic paycheck.
Even just looking at the past two seasons, Harper has been worth an average of more than $50 million a season. If you think last year was the real Harper (which is a stretch), $400 million is more than Harper is worth. But even if he alternated great years and "down" years, something he's unlikely to do, he'd still be a bargain. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ If Harper really wants that kind of money, he's not being unreasonable. He's likely selling himself short.
Fans appear to be pretty split on the contract demands.