Bryce Harper's 13-year, $330 million deal is actually a bargain for the Phillies
Bryce Harper has always been polarizing. The day Sports Illustrated dubbed Harper the "chosen one," people rushed to judgment. He was either a phenom you couldn't wait to see make the majors, or a fraud you hoped would burn out spectacularly.
Harper's playing career has done little to close the gap between those two opinions. Both sides have been validated by what he has done on the field. One side can claim his excellent MVP season in 2015. The other can point to his injuries and brutal first half in 2018. His on-field blowups can either prove he has passion or can be used to say Harper is a jerk. His "where's my ring" quote shows either Harper has confidence in himself or that he's arrogant.
Because of that, Harper's mega-deal was always going to be controversial. After an offseason of waiting, fans finally got the terms to that deal Thursday. Harper signed a 13-year, $330 million deal with the Philadelphia Phillies. It's the largest contract ever given to a baseball player.
While some fans will rush to tell you the contract confirms Harper is overrated, the deal is polarizing. Because while Harper will receive more money than any player in the history of the game, his deal is also a bargain for the Phillies.
How is that possible? A fair amount of it has to do with the annual average value (AAV) of Harper’s deal. On average, Harper will make $25.38 million per season with the Phillies. That is far from a restrictive salary in today’s game.
In fact, plenty of players have signed for a higher AAV than Harper in the past. That list includes Zack Greinke, David Price, Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander, Yoenis Cespedes, Max Scherzer and Alex Rodriguez (twice).
Harper getting less than those players is not a reflection on teams getting “smarter” in free agency. You could maybe make that argument if Harper was hitting the market at 31, but that’s not the case. At 26, he was one of the youngest players to ever hit free agency. He’s still in his peak.
As Manny Machado showed earlier in the offseason, the going rate for an elite, young player should be $30 million per season.
Considering both the older contracts and Machado’s mega-deal, there was plenty of evidence to suggest Harper was looking at $30 million per year as a starting point. The Phillies getting him for $5 million less should be viewed as a coup.
No one is pretending $25 million is a small amount of money. It’s massive. And while it’s not the biggest total seen in baseball, it is up there.
But as time goes on, that number is going to look only smaller compared to other mega-deals handed out in the near future. Mike Trout already makes $34 million per season now. He could blow both Machado and Harper out of the water once he hits the market after the 2020 season. Francisco Lindor could hit the market with an elite résumé after the 2021 season. If Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is as good as everyone says, maybe he’ll set a record of his own once he becomes a free agent years from now.
As long as baseball continues to grow, its contracts will grow too. It’s only a matter of time before the game sees its first $400 million player. Revenues hit an all-time high in 2018, proving baseball is as lucrative as ever. Six years from now, Harper’s $25 million AAV won’t look nearly as high.
This comes with the major caveat that the game won’t change drastically in the coming years. That’s no guarantee. The glacial pace of the past two winters has created unrest between team owners and players. Given the contentious nature of the issues at hand, it’s tough to predict how much baseball will change once the current collective-bargaining agreement expires in December 2021.
Assuming both sides can work things out, baseball should continue to flourish. Before long, Harper’s yearly salary won’t seem like such a big deal.
He’ll still remain the most polarizing player in the game, of course, but at least it won’t be due to his contract.