Even for Bryce Harper, 15-Year, $600M Megadeal Would Be Ridiculous

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJune 13, 2017

Washington Nationals' Bryce Harper rounds third base after hitting a home run in the first inning of the first game of a doubleheader against the Philadelphia Phillies, Sunday, May 14, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Mark Tenally)
Mark Tenally/Associated Press

Heard the latest chatter about Bryce Harper's next contract?

No? Well, here's a small spoiler: It's pretty outrageous.

With the Washington Nationals superstar now just a year-and-a-half away from free agency, there's already been plenty of talk about his chances of becoming Major League Baseball's first $400 million player. Including right here from yours truly.

The warning from Harper himself just last year was to not sell him short. At least one general manager now seems to be on that same wavelength.

“Four hundred million is light,” the GM told ESPN.com's Eddie Matz. “It's going to be more than that. If you could sign him to a 15-year contract, you do it. I would say something in the range of $35 million a year, maybe closer to the high 30s. It could approach 40 million dollars a year.”

A 15-year deal at $40 million per year? That's...holy moly, that's $600 million!

The largest contract in MLB history is the 13-year, $325 million deal that Giancarlo Stanton signed with the Miami Marlins in 2014. A $600 million deal for Harper would nearly double that. 

But as absurd as this may sound, it's worth taking seriously.

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WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 10:  Bryce Harper #34 of the Washington Nationals talks with Giancarlo Stanton #27 of the Miami Marlins during a play review in the fifth inning at Nationals Park on April 10, 2016 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Imag
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For starters, there's no debate that Harper is a hugely valuable player.

He has youth on his side, as he'll only be coming off his age-25 season when he reaches free agency after 2018. He's also enormously talented. His 2012 season was possibly the best ever by a teenager. He had a 1.109 OPS and 42 home runs in 2015, and was the unanimous MVP. He has a 1.044 OPS and is on pace for 40 more homers this season.

In theory, Harper's youth and talent make him worthy of a $600 million contract. Per Cliff Corcoran of Sports on Earth, he could even be worth $664 million in a Stanton-sized 13-year deal. 

Up next, consider the state of MLB.

As Maury Brown of Forbes reported, the league pulled in nearly $10 billion in revenue last year. It presumably will have pulled in another $10 billion by the time Harper hits free agency after 2018. A $600 million commitment would represent just six percent of the league's money.

Consider that in comparison to the $252 million contract Alex Rodriguez signed in 2000. Major League Baseball raked in $3.7 billion that year. A-Rod's deal, which was more than twice as large as the $116.5 million contract Ken Griffey Jr. signed just eight months earlier, represented seven percent of that. To boot, his was only a 10-year deal.

So relative to his qualities and the amount of money in Major League Baseball, a $600 million contract for Harper wouldn't be totally unreasonable in theory.

But in baseball's current reality, it's a lot harder to imagine any team being quick to give him that kind of money.

As FanGraphs' Nathaniel Grow highlighted in 2014, the players' share of MLB's revenue has gone from a peak of 55 percent in the early 2000s to under 40 percent in recent years. Teams have thus been in the business of suppressing salaries, not inflating them.

This is partially due to the disincentives teams have from bloating their payrolls: revenue sharing and the luxury tax. Not surprisingly, MLB's newest collective bargaining agreement kept both things in place.

Mind you, this doesn't mean teams can (or should) avoid a market reset forever. In fact, Harper and fellow superstar Manny Machado hitting free agency at the same time probably makes that inevitable.

“[It's] safe to assume the value of free agent years is going to go up, and it’s not crazy to think that number is going to start with a four," one agent told Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated.

But even if this is the case, and Harper is all but assured a $400 million deal, that would still be short of his peak worth. To get him there, one team would have to go rogue.

You know, sort of like what the Texas Rangers did when they signed A-Rod 17 years ago.

12 Dec 2000:  Newly signed Texas Ranger Alex Rodriguez, center, is introduced to the media by club owner Tom Hicks, right, and Rodriguez' agent Scott Boras during a press conference at The Ballpark in Arlington, Texas. Mandatory Credit: Gary Barber/ALLSPO
Gary Barber/Getty Images

It was a huge deal at the time and would be even huger if it were signed today. Using an inflation calculator, A-Rod's deal would be worth $529.2 million over 15 years in today's dollars.

Thus, a proposition: A 15-year, $600 million deal should be reserved only for a modern-day A-Rod. Harper is not that guy.

Like A-Rod, Harper is a No. 1 pick who's turned into an MVP-caliber superstar. But he'll be a year older than A-Rod was when he hit free agency. Rodriguez also played shortstop, a premium position. Harper plays right field, the opposite of a premium position.

Rodriguez also was arguably the best player in baseball when he became a free agent. Between 1996 and 2000, no other position player produced more WAR.

Harper was baseball's best player in 2015, when he led all players with 9.9 WAR. But otherwise, he's only tied for 15th in WAR among position players since 2012. 

Harper suffered through injury-marred seasons in 2013, 2014 and, although he played in 147 games, seemingly 2016 as well. And even when he's been healthy, he's been far from slump-proof.

So it goes, nowadays. Harper was hotter than blazes through the first six weeks of this season. But going into Monday, he had just a .637 OPS in 20 games since to May 17.

Rather than distract themselves with his upside and shower him with money accordingly, prospective suitors for Harper must have these things in mind after 2018.

That would push back on his earning power even if he didn't have any competition for big money. But with Machado, Josh Donaldson and potentially Clayton Kershaw also available that winter, competition for big money will be there.

Who would be a modern-day A-Rod?

Well, it could've been Mike Trout. The 25-year-old was once ticketed for free agency after 2017, and he would have been set to capitalize on being the best young player ever amid a relatively weak free-agent market.

But the Los Angeles Angels nixed that when they extended Trout through his age-28 season in 2020. His next contract will be huge, but probably not long enough for a $600 million commitment.

So nobody should hold their breath waiting for baseball's first $600 million deal. It took 14 years for the league to go from its first $200 million deal to its first $300 million deal. Its first $400 million deal should come soon. But after that, it could be a slow climb to $600 million.

In the meantime, Harper need not worry. He's going to get paid. A lot. And rightfully so.

But $600 million? That falls somewhere between "I'll believe it when I see it" and "I doubt it."

Data courtesy of Baseball Reference.

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