If six-time All-Star Bryce Harper really is nearing a free-agent decision, don’t expect it to be a “short-term” deal. At least that’s according to one insider.
MLB Network‘s Jon Heyman says that “word is Bryce Harper is not signing – or even considering – short-term deals.”
It’s up to your imagination to decide what exactly a short-term deal would have looked like, but the guess here is that it would have been a three-year deal with an annual salary at or north of $35 million and a full no-trade clause. Such a deal would have allowed Harper to re-enter the free-agent market after the 2021 season, the same offseason that the collective bargaining agreement expires. Mike Trout and Mookie Betts, both of whom can be free-agents after the 2020 season, also would have set a new baseline for the salaries of superstar outfielders a year prior, which would benefit Harper as he reached free-agency at age 29. (Others have suggested it would have been a five or six year deal, but it’s hard to imagine such a deal not including an opt-out after the 2021 season.)
It’s still entirely possible that the chance to become a free-agent after the 2021 season could entice Harper to sign on the dotted line. But it would come in the form of a player opt-out, with five to seven years still guaranteed at an annual rate north of $30 million if Harper chose not to opt-out.
Consider this: Jason Heyward signed an eight-year/$184 million free-agent contract with the Chicago Cubs ahead of the 2016 season. Heyward, then 26, was coming off of the best season of his career with the St. Louis Cardinals, having posted a career-high 5.6 fWAR. The expectation was that Heyward would opt-out of his deal after the third season, and join the great Harper, Manny Machado free-agent class. He would only be 29, and three years of inflation would allow him to collect more than the average annual salary of $23 million that his current deal was paying him.
Well, not only have salaries not continued to rise for star free-agents over the past three years, but Heyward’s deal with the Cubs has turned into a disaster. He did win a World Series with the Cubs in 2016, and has remained a good fielder, but after posting a 5.6 fWAR in 2015, he’s totaled a 4.0 fWAR in three seasons with the Cubs. Understandably, he elected not to exercise his opt-out and become a free-agent this offseason. He’s owed $106 million over the next five seasons, which doesn’t count the deferred money in his deal that will bring it to the total value of $184 million. It was nice for Heyward to have the chance to opt-out this offseason, but if his deal had simply expired, he likely would have been looking at a one-year deal, as opposed to being guaranteed over $100 million more. Even if he had signed a five-year deal instead of an eight-year deal, he would be owed $60 million, over $40 million less than he is guaranteed for having secured eight guaranteed years.
This isn’t to say that Harper’s production will fall off the map over the next three seasons. He’s 26, he should just be entering his prime. If he got the chance to play 81 games at Citizens Bank Park, one would think that would only help his production. But major injuries happen. Baseball is a strange sport; players inexplicably come back some seasons and can’t figure out what once made them a star. So yes, if the Phillies want to put forward their best offer to Harper, it would probably behoove them to include an opt-out relatively early in the deal. It would also make sense for them to leave five to seven seasons after that potential opt-out that still look enticing if Harper were to decide, for whatever reason, not to test free-agency again in a few seasons.
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