Bryce Harper's quick ascent to the majors could actually cost him millions of dollars in 2015, the last year of the $9.9 million big league contract he signed after he was the first player taken in the 2010 draft.
Unlike some major league contracts signed by amateurs, Harper's contract does not include a clause that would allow him to opt out of his deal if he was to become arbitration eligible before it were to expire.
Thus, Harper's salary is set at $2.25 million for 2015. Barring any unexpected minor league time next season, though, he would have accrued enough major league service time to be eligible for arbitration prior to the following season. For a player of his caliber—NL Rookie of the Year in 2012, NL All-Star in 2012-2013—he'd likely earn significantly more than his current contract stipulates.
With the 21-year-old Harper in line to eventually command an unprecedented long-term deal that would be amongst the largest in major league history, losing out on $5 million might not seem like a big deal. And $5 million probably isn't a big deal to the Washington Nationals, either, which is why they could just allow him to opt out of the deal after the season to avoid any future conflicts with their young superstar.
But if Harper and his agent, Scott Boras, are forced to file a grievance if the Nats aren't willing to let him out of the contract, things could get ugly.
Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post thinks that the two sides could simply use the unresolved contract issue as a motivation to negotiate a long-term deal.
And while that seems like an easy solution and one that could actually save the Nats money down the road if Harper does actually turn out to be the great player everyone expects him to be, Boras' likely asking price would likely make a deal an extremely risky investment for a player who is under club control for the next five seasons.
Failing to sign Harper to a long-term deal while he's still under contract would result in him becoming a free agent after the 2018 season. He'll be just 26 and he could very well have over 200 career homers on his big league resume.
As a comparison, let's take a look at two other big league hitters who had established by their early 20s that they were superstar-caliber players and would likely continue to be for years to come.
When Alex Rodriguez became a free agent after the 2000 season, he was still only 25 years of age and had 189 career homers. He left the Seattle Mariners to sign a 10-year, $252 million deal with the Texas Rangers.
Albert Pujols (pictured), on the other hand, would've been a free agent after his age-26 season. He would have 250 career homers by that time, although he chose to sign a long-term extension with the St. Louis Cardinals while still under club control for three more seasons. The contract he signed was for eight years and $116 million, which is much less than what Rodriguez got from Texas as a free agent.
But it also set him up for another big payday before he'd be considered past his prime. And barely. Pujols reached free agency for the first time after his age-32 season and landed himself a 10-year, $240 million deal with the Angels.
That's 18 years and $356 million total for Pujols from 2004-2021. Rodriguez, after he opted out of his contract after the 2007 season to sign a new 10-year deal and not taking into account the money he'd lose if his current suspension is upheld, is set to make a total of approximately $328 million over 17 years from 2001-2017.
Those numbers are comparable, but had Rodriguez's original contract signed with Texas not included the opt-out clause, he would've made far less and Pujols' strategy would've clearly been the better one.
With that in mind, expect Boras to be open to a deal that will allow his client to become a free agent somewhere around his ages 28-31 seasons. While it wouldn't be surprising for him to ask for a 14- or 15-year contract if Harper reached free agency as a 26 year old, the more realistic path would be similar to what Pujols did.
If a 10-year contract extension can be reached now, Harper would become a free agent for the first time as he enters his age-31 season and he'd be in line for another 10-year contract through his age-40 season. If I had to take a guess at how much he'd cost for each 10-year deal, I'd say $200 million for his ages 21-30 seasons, and $350-400 million for his ages 31-40 seasons.
Will the Nats dish out $200 million to a 21-year-old kid with only 257 big league games under his belt? No one would blame them if they passed on that. But, at the very least, a goodwill gesture to add an opt-out clause to his contract so he'd be eligible for arbitration next offseason would go a long way.
Not only would Harper and Boras be happy campers, the window to figure out how to keep Harper in town long term could also be extended by a few years. If not, any talks could end immediately without the chance of being renewed.