Phillies Nuggets with Tim Kelly

Phillies Nuggets: 13 years is a lot…for any potential free-agent

Bryce Harper, after years of anticipation, is a free-agent. (Arturo Pardavila III/Wikimedia Commons)

Philadelphia Phillies general manager Matt Klentak has talked about perception on two different occasions since the season ended. At his season-ending press conference, he said that manager Gabe Kapler learned that perception matters in his first season on the job. When asked about Manny Machado’s eventful postseason, he again responded by saying that perception matters.

He’s also well aware that the Phillies, for at least three years now, have been seen as a favorite to sign either Machado or Bryce Harper this offseason. For many Phillies fans – who Klentak has gone out of his way to talk about wanting to make proud since the season ended – the offseason will be viewed as a failure if the Phillies don’t come away with one of the two superstars. Klentak is aware of that perception. He’s also aware that at this time last offseason, there were some impatient fans calling for him to give free-agent Jake Arrieta a five or six-year deal. By the end of the 2018 season, many of those same fans were panning the three-year/$75 million deal he ultimately signed Arrieta to. Perception can change – it doesn’t have to be fair either, but it’s best in Philadelphia to have the fans on your side.

So Klentak, president Andy MacPhail and managing partner John Middleton could soon find themselves in a difficult position with Harper and his agent Scott Boras. That trio wants to re-energize a fanbase that less-than-a-decade ago filled Citizens Bank Park to capacity every night. They also want the Phillies to become annual World Series contenders again, like they were from 2007-2011. 2019 will mark a decade since Middleton told Ryan Howard, less than an hour after the team had fallen in the 2009 World Series, that he “wanted his ******* trophy back.” It feels safe to assume Middleton’s desire to be reunited with the Commissioner’s Trophy hasn’t dissipated through a stretch of seven non-winning seasons.

But is there a limit to how far the Phillies would be willing to go to make a splash this offseason?

MLB Trade Rumors is the most-respected authority on aggregation of trade rumors. I have to say though, when I initially read Tim Dierkes’ prediction that Harper would land a 14-year/$420 million deal in free-agency, I balked. $30 million as an average annual value wouldn’t be surprising for Harper – in fact, it may be on the lower end of predictions from those in the know. But a 14-year deal? That just felt like a bit much. And then Bob Nightengale of USA Today reported Wednesday that the Phillies are seen as the favorite by agents and executives to sign Harper, who is apparently seeking to at least match the 13 years that Giancarlo Stanton signed for in November of 2013, along with the $34.42 million that Zack Greinke got as an average annual value in his deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Let’s start with this: I’ll believe Harper getting a deal in excess of 10 years when I see it.

Alex Pavlovic of NBC Sports Bay Area says that rumors of the San Francisco Giants being interested in Harper has caused “shock” in the organization, whose interest has apparently been overstated. An offseason after the New York Yankees acquired Giancarlo Stanton, a source told ESPN‘s Buster Olney that Harper “isn’t going to be a Yankee.” With Yu Darvish, Jason Heyward and Tyler Chatwood set to make over $50 million combined in 2019, the Chicago Cubs may not be willing to issue a historic deal to Harper. The Los Angeles Dodgers already have six players under contract for 2019 that are capable of being starting outfielders. The Los Angeles Angels could certainly use Harper, though they may have to spend this offseason figuring out what the future of their own superstar outfielder is. The World Series champion Red Sox are World Series champions largely because of the elite outfield trio of Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Andrew Benintendi.

Many of the usual subjects simply aren’t in on Harper – or aren’t in to the point where they’ll give a 13 or 14-year deal. To a degree, it reminds you of when Alex Rodriguez opted out of his contract with the New York Yankees after 2007, a year in which he won the American League MVP. Granted, Rodriguez was about to enter his age-32 season, but after posting a 9.6 fWAR in 2007, there was some thought that every major market team would jump at the opportunity to sign Rodriguez. That simply didn’t happen. He still signed a historic 10-year/$275 million contract to return to the Bronx, but the real win in the deal was that Rodriguez got a 10-year deal after opting-out of the remaining three years of a 10-year/$250 million deal he had signed with the Texas Rangers prior to the 2001 season. In terms of average annual salary, he only got a few million more per year than he had gotten seven years prior.

Harper – who, like Rodriguez was, is represented by Scott Boras – will almost certainly receive a 10-year deal with an average annual value of at least $35 million per season. The guess here is he’ll get at least a partial no-trade clause before things are all said and done. He’s the most recognizable face in the sport, one with Hall of Fame talent. Those type of figures rarely reach free-agency at age 26. Rodriguez in the Winter of 2000 and Barry Bonds in the Winter of 1992 may be the only comparable free-agents in baseball history, which is certainly saying something. But Harper has dealt with injuries and has failed to put back-to-back historic seasons together in his career. That’s not to say he won’t – if you sign him to a 10-year deal, you would do so expecting him to have a peak that will propel him to Cooperstown wearing your cap. But if Harper and Boras are insistent on getting a 13 or 14-year deal, they may be waiting quite a bit longer than next month’s MLB Winter Meetings, which will take place in Harper’s hometown of Las Vegas.

Part of what makes Harper such an intriguing free-agent is that he’s only 26. When Rodriguez reached free-agency for the second time, he was 31. Albert Pujols – perhaps one of the five greatest right-handed hitters in baseball history – was also 31 when he signed a 10-year/$240 million deal with the Los Angeles Angels. Future Hall of Fame Miguel Cabrera was 33 when his eight-year/$248 million extension with the Detroit Tigers began. Robinson Cano was entering his age-31 season when the Yankees allowed him to depart in free-agency to join the Seattle Mariners on a 10-year/$240 million contract that included a full no-trade clause.

If you just looked at statistics, all four of the players just mentioned would be first-ballot Hall of Famers. But the common denominator among the quartet in this case is that each of the teams that signed them to $200 plus million contracts after the age of 30 would welcome a mulligan.

There is a drastic difference in signing someone to a 10-year deal at age 26, as opposed to age 30. Not only do you get years 26-30 – which represents the absolute peak for many offensive players – but you don’t get years 36-40. If Cano had signed his 10-year deal at age 26, the deal would be completed now and it would be looked at as a pretty successful contract, excluding the PED suspension that cost him 80 games in 2018. Instead, the Mariners are on the hook for $120 million more through Cano’s age-40 season. The Angels are hamstrung by Albert Pujols’ backloaded deal, which will pay him $87 million over the next three seasons. You get the point.

On one hand, there is something to be said for having to pay Harper through age 40 if the first seven seasons of that deal help the Phillies to win at least one World Series title and propel Harper towards the 500 home run club. On the other hand, six seasons where you are paying someone to be a superstar and they are past that point of their career is a lot. Phillies fans have found out over the last six years – all of which have been losing seasons – just how long six years can be. And when you’re in the midst of a prolonged stretch of not winning, it’s hard to get too exited about past team accomplishments or even individual milestones Harper would be approaching.

The beauty of signing Harper to a 10-year deal at age 26 is there’s a very good chance that like Rodriguez, he’ll opt-out in his early 30s. At that point, you likely will have received six or seven years of his absolute best production, and while he re-evaluates his market, you too can ponder whether signing another eight or nine-year deal makes sense. If he doesn’t opt-out in his early 30s – there almost certainly will be at least one opt-out at some point in his deal – then you have a Hall of Fame talent through his age 35 season. There are worse fates. That’s drastically different than having to pay a player one of the highest salaries in the league from ages 36-40. If Harper is already signed through age 40, he’s much less inclined to exercise an opt-out in his early 30s.

None of this is to say that the Phillies shouldn’t aggressively pursue Harper. As mentioned earlier in the post, the best guess here is that Harper will ultimately sign a 10-year free-agent deal. But Harper’s defensive metrics already aren’t good and you do wonder how his lower back will hold up as he ages given the amount of violence he generates in his swing. At this point, and probably always, there isn’t a DH in the National League. And frankly, you don’t want to spend the back-half of a contract paying someone at age 37 for how they produced at age-27 – that’s not conducive to building a team that consistently wins. So if the initial asking price is 13 years at $35 million per season, the Phillies need to be careful not to bid against themselves out of desperation.

When Ruben Amaro Jr. lured Cliff Lee back to Philadelphia after the 2010 season, he was pretty damn popular in Philadelphia. By the time that the Phillies dismissed Amaro in September of 2015, he was pretty, well, not. If Klentak makes a major transaction this offseason, Harper or otherwise, praise will be lauded on him in the short-term. But he may need to tread carefully in meeting the demands of Harper and Boras, because perception does matter. And in Philadelphia, it can and will change.


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