Bryce Harper scuffled along, hitting .214 before the All-Star Game last summer, which led to the second-worst average of his career (.249). He did not finish among the top 19 in National League Most Valuable Player voting. So, while famed agent Scott Boras whips up visions of a record-setting, sugarplum contract before next week's winter meetings, many hot-stove enthusiasts are wondering whether Harper is even a generational superstar anymore.
C'mon. Are there showgirls in Las Vegas?
"Bryce Harper is an elite player who would make every one of the 30 clubs better, unequivocally," Minnesota's Thad Levine said at the general managers meetings in Carlsbad, California, last month. "Where he is in the lexicon of the greats of his era is yet to be determined, but there is no doubt in my mind that he is a bona fide, elite competitive advantage in today's game."
That didn't work, but as the winter meetings unfold at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino next week, a franchise player more endemic to Las Vegas than Elvis, Celine Dion or Elton John is on deck for a colossal payout. Harper was raised in Vegas, lives in Vegas and, at the prime age of 26, will hit the jackpot in Vegas (or, truthfully, given how complicated these negotiations will be, sometime soon after).
Question is, as the symphony of slot machines and roulette wheels crescendo, just how big will that jackpot be?
With his long-awaited free agency finally here, the final number figures to check in somewhere between those two.
"Certainly, Harper's bazaar has begun," Boras quipped last month. "It's fashionable. It's historical. It's elite. Global, certainly.
"And certainly, it has inspirations that deal with great shoes and great hair, inspirations on the part of Bryce."
Harper's "down" season last year may make some nervous. (Boras attributed his early struggles to the extreme shifts rivals deployed on him; in the meantime, Harper ended up with 34 homers and 100 RBI and hit .300/.434/.538 in the second half.)
But it didn't seem to deter many executives questioned by B/R last month.
"It's kind of like when a prospect is at A-ball, he's a can't-miss guy, right?" said one high-ranking executive requesting anonymity because of the sensitive nature of Harper's free agency. "Then he goes to Double-A, and as you move up the line, flaws get exposed. It's kind of my sense of what happened a little bit with Harper. We're not really in that mix. He's still an unbelievable player at an age when players really don't come available. Does he have some flaws? Yes, he does.
"That's, one, to be expected, and, when you compare everyone to Mike Trout, everyone looks bad in comparison. But he's still a hell of a player. "
Right now, it appears to be a wide-open field as to who will be acquiring Bryce's great bat, shoes and hair (and imagine the product endorsements still awaiting that hair).
There are a lot of teams for which he makes sense. There are the Phillies (ready to spend after building a new, promising core). There are the White Sox (moving closer to their window to win with money to spend). Of course, there are the Yankees and the Dodgers and the Giants (all of whom reset their payroll luxury-tax thresholds in the last year).
The Mets (always battling the Yankees for back-page headlines), the Cubs (Harper and Kris Bryant are Las Vegas natives and friends) and the Cardinals (coming off three playoff-less seasons) are likely in the mix too.
And then the Nationals (owner Ted Lerner and family love him).
Truthfully, he makes sense for a flock of other teams as well in a competitive, if not financial, sense.
"I think, generally, everybody understands the level of talent that he possesses," said Colorado GM Jeff Bridich, whose team is not expected to be involved in the Harper sweepstakes. "He's still a young major league baseball player, even with all of his experience.
"The talent isn't always the same as performance, right? Performance is a lot more difficult than talent. Those things are not always the same.
"Even the best players in the game have years where they struggle, for whatever reason. I think generally people understand the type of talent he is."
Harper won the NL MVP award in 2015 with a sensational season in which he led the majors in on-base percentage (.460), slugging percentage (.649) and OPS (1.109) as well as the NL in runs scored (118) and home runs (42).
In fact, as Boras is quick to point out, since Harper entered the majors in 2012, he is the only player to post an OPS of 1.100 or more. Setting aside the 1990s and 2000s, which were clouded by performance-enhancing drug scandals (and several 1.100 OPS seasons), only one player in the entire 1970s and 1980s combined posted a 1.100 OPS (George Brett, 1980). In the 1960s, just two players accomplished it (Willie McCovey and Norm Cash). There were only two in the 1950s (Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle) and three in the 1940s (Williams, Stan Musial and Hank Greenberg).
"Anyone who's done what Bryce Harper has done at 25, you're almost a lock to be a Hall of Fame player," Boras said. "And we've exhibited this in our documents to the owners that we've met with, and we've clarified this in 14 different ways."
Here is another measure that demonstrates Harper's generational, Hall of Fame trajectory: His cumulative career-total WAR through his age-25 season stands at 30.7. Just 21 other outfielders in history have posted a higher WAR through their age-25 seasons. Of those, 15 are in the Hall of Fame (luminaries such as Ty Cobb, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Al Kaline, Ken Griffey Jr., Mantle, Musial, etc.). Two are still active (Trout and Albert Pujols).
"The criteria is a category of a small, small group of men, on equal playing fields over decades, and the likelihood is that of all who do it prior to 25, they all do it after 25," Boras said. "So we know elite performances are coming for Bryce Harper and for the franchise he plays for."
The largest-ever MLB contract is the 13-year, $325 million deal that the Miami Marlins awarded Giancarlo Stanton in November 2014. Ranked by average annual value, Arizona pitcher Zack Greinke's $34.4 million is the record (Greinke's deal is for $206.5 million over six years, signed in December 2015).
Harper seems a certainty to break at least one of those two records. If he signs a long-term deal, as expected, he should eclipse $325 million. If he reaches an unexpected snag and veers toward a short-term deal, he likely will surpass Greinke.
Stanton, on the aforementioned career WAR list, ranks six places behind Harper—28th all-time among outfielders—with a 25.3 WAR through his age-25 season.
This would seem to point toward a Harper deal in excess of Stanton's too. Unless executives take the shorter, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately view instead of the longer, historical arc.
Harper has yet to follow up that MVP '15 season with anything close. His slugging percentage dropped by 208 points from '15 to '16 (.649-.441), and his batting average dropped nearly 100 points (.330-.243). Then, in '17, he missed a little more than six weeks of game action after hyperextending his knee. In a classic dig at Manny Machado, who is dueling Harper for the biggest contract this winter, Boras noted that Harper's injury occurred while he was "hustling to first base" attempting to beat out a ground ball.
Though Harper was a contender for the MVP award in '17 at the time of his injury, the missed games helped knock him down to 12th in the final voting—meaning, outside of his '15 award, Harper has not finished among the top 10 in any other MVP race. Combine that with the fact that Washington took an oh-fer in every playoff series with Harper in the middle of its lineup, and one baseball truism rings loud and clear: In this sport, while a high payroll can increase the odds of winning, the victories only come when a so-called franchise player is surrounded by the right people.
Indeed, as one GM requesting anonymity points out, in trade negotiations for Stanton after he won the NL MVP award in 2017, the Yankees still convinced the Marlins to defray the contract by $30 million total ($10 million annually in 2026, 2027 and 2028).
"I would think that would give us some indication that even the most wealthy of the teams has a tough time supporting a $300 million contract," the GM said. "Now who knows if we're going to see something change materially this offseason. But at least, as I walk into the situation, until proven otherwise, that seems like a marker worth noting.
"Arguably, one of the two best players in the game [as judged by MVP awards] ultimately wasn't face-value worth more than $325 [million]. So is the next guy going to be? It's hard to argue that."
As free-agent rumors clink like ice cubes in casino cocktails, what we haven't heard yet this winter is a particular club identifying Harper as its No. 1 target—for obvious reasons. Clubs have little interest in driving his price any higher.
"This is a submarine race, not a regatta," Boras said. "You do not want other teams knowing you're interested in a generational player."
The Phillies, a surprise contender last summer before collapsing with an 8-20 September, are heavy favorites to sign either Harper or Machado. Speaking generally, without referencing individual free agents, GM Matt Klentak seemed to acknowledge the Phillies will be in the mix.
"Several years ago, the Phillies were carrying some of the highest payrolls in the game," Klentak said, referring to the Phillies circa 2008, when they last won the World Series. "Going through the rebuild, we were pretty disciplined about the contracts we signed in order to preserve our financial flexibility for down the road.
"At some point as the team gets better, we know that we are going to make those investments again to make the team good and keep the team good. Our ownership has demonstrated that time and time again. What we've done the last four or five years is what we should do during a rebuild.
"And now that our team is better, we'll be much more open to exploring more expensive commitments."
Sometimes, silence can be, ahem, golden.
Some of the game's biggest spenders won't make it easy for Philadelphia. As mentioned above, the Yankees, Dodgers and Giants all have interest, even if Harper isn't exactly what each needs. The Yankees outfield, for instance, is stocked with Stanton, Aaron Hicks, Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury, but Boras suggested earlier this offseason that Harper is athletic enough and willing to play first base. The Giants do have need of Harper's offense, although a San Francisco source tells B/R the Giants are not expecting ownership to approve a contract as large as Harper is expected to command.
The Nationals, of course, are a different story. After making Harper the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 draft, Washington developed him, groomed him and watched him blossom into the face of its franchise.
Though the Nats have never won a playoff series with Harper, his emotional importance to both the franchise and to the District of Columbia perhaps was most evident in the joy with which he won the Home Run Derby at Nationals Stadium in July.
"I think one of my favorite things is walking in and seeing the workers and, you know, really having that relationship with them," he said that July night of the concessionaires and others at Nationals Park. "It's a lot of fun.
"I've been here since I was 17 years old. You know, it's something that I've grown in front of these fans, and I've grown in front of the media and these people….
"I love talking and sitting down and seeing everybody every single day. Those are the relationships that you love. Those are the things that you see every single day and look at it and go, man, you know, that's what it's all about."
After word broke in September that Harper had declined the Nationals' $300 million offer, GM Mike Rizzo said neither side is working under a deadline.
"No time frames were given," Rizzo said. "He's going to go about his business, and we're going to go about our business."
Some still view the Nationals as favorites to re-sign him. And some in the NL East are just watching and waiting to see if he exits the division.
"I've only been in the NL East one year, so I don't have these years and years of Bryce Harper hitting home runs against us etched in my mind," said Atlanta GM Alex Anthopoulos, whose Braves signed infielder Josh Donaldson to a one-year, $23 million deal last week. "He's a great player, one of the best players in the game.
"I don't worry about [the Nationals] because if it's not a Bryce Harper, it will be somebody else. Mike's done an unbelievable job with the Nats. Juan Soto comes up, and he has a great year, and they make trades and signings. They're going to be good no matter what."
As the Brink's trucks point toward Vegas, the end game is getting closer.
"In Washington, attendance went up over 600,000 fans and remained there," Boras said of Harper's tenure. "TV ratings nearly tripled. Their franchise value went from $480 million to [almost] $2 billion. You've seen an owner's dream happen before you.
"And for an owner to know that the rocket ship of economic opportunity is just blasting off because a player is just entering the prime of his career, you're really talking about just a unique and rare opportunity for an owner."
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.