Bryce Harper's Huge Gamble Pays Off Perfectly with Record $330M Phillies Deal

Danny KnoblerMLB Lead WriterFebruary 28, 2019

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 05: Bryce Harper #34 of the Washington Nationals celebrates after scoring on an three-run RBI double by Ryan Zimmerman #11 (not pictured) in seventh inning against the St. Louis Cardinals at Nationals Park on September 5, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

Every day in Bryce Harper's hometown, gamblers wrestle with whether to take the money on the table or risk it and try to make more.

We know now that Harper doesn't mind taking a risk. We also know he's a lot better gambler than most of those staring at their chips on the card tables of Las Vegas.

Harper gambled and won. And so did the Philadelphia Phillies.

He turned down $300 million and signed for $330 million, and the difference might be even more than that, depending on the structures of those two offers. The Phillies, meanwhile, waited out the strangest of baseball winters and still came away with the star they needed.

They have Harper, with MLB Network's Jon Heyman first reporting Thursday afternoon on Twitter that the star would go to Philadelphia for what Heyman later revealed to be a $330 million, 13-year contract.

Harper has his record deal, with the $330 million topping the $325 million Giancarlo Stanton got in his November 2014 pact with the Miami Marlins. The Phillies have their star, the type of player they absolutely had to sign after owner John Middleton began the offseason promising to spend "stupid" money.

You're welcome to argue whether committing $330 million to get a 26-year-old star for basically the rest of his career counts as stupid. I happen to think it doesn't, and that it was smart for a team on the rise to do what it took to sign the kind of transformational player it hadn't yet found.

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Harper should love hitting every day in Citizens Bank Park.
Harper should love hitting every day in Citizens Bank Park.Hunter Martin/Getty Images

What's no longer open to dispute is that Harper and his agent, Scott Boras, played this difficult free-agent market well, and that waiting through the offseason and a couple of weeks into spring training was worth it.

They outlasted fellow free-agent star Manny Machado, and in the end outdid Machado in total value (Machado got $300 million over 10 years from the San Diego Padres). They ignored the noise about how teams had learned from big free-agent deals of the past, and the suggestions that Harper would need to agree to a much shorter-term deal.

In the end he got 13 years, and while that may help the Phillies by lowering the average annual value of the pact (AAV is used for luxury-tax purposes), the fact is Harper gets to settle in with a team and city that will likely grow to love him. Phillies fans already have to love Heyman's report that Harper wasn't even concerned about putting opt-outs in the deal, as so many other big-name stars do these days.

The Phillies and their fans know Harper as a division rival from his nearly seven years with the Washington Nationals. They know his arrival in D.C. in 2012 coincided with a shift at the top of the National League East, with the Phils' run of five straight division titles ending and the Nationals' run of four titles in six years beginning.

Now Harper moves up I-95, and while he leaves behind a Nationals team that is still very talented and very much a threat to win, he joins a Phillies club that led the East as late as Aug. 12 last year before badly fading at the end. He has no reason to regret declining the $300 million, 10-year contract the Nationals reportedly offered at the end of last season, but they may regret not going further to keep the best player they've ever had.

Harper joins a Phillies team that had a nice winter even before this week, having added catcher J.T. Realmuto, reliever David Robertson, outfielder Andrew McCutchen and shortstop Jean Segura. He goes to a city that has a reputation for booing but fully embraces stars who play hard, which should suit Harper well. He goes to a ballpark that should showcase his left-handed power.

Harper had great times with the Nationals, but now he becomes their rival in the National League East.
Harper had great times with the Nationals, but now he becomes their rival in the National League East.Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

He arrives at an age when most players are just entering their prime, but he has already had one season where he looked like one of the best players ever. The first seven seasons of Harper's career have been nowhere near as consistent as those of Mike Trout, who he has forever been compared and contrasted with, but there's little doubt Harper's capable of greatness.

The Phillies are gambling $330 million he can reach that level often enough to help lead them to championships. Perhaps they'll even be able to team him with Trout someday, in the dream scenario I wrote about in January.

But the bigger gamble for the Phillies would have been to let this opportunity pass in hopes of signing Trout or another big star in the future. As much as teams need long-term planning, situations change.

Just ask the clubs that hoped to sign Nolan Arenado when he was expected to become a free agent in the next few years. Those plans were great, right up until Arenado signed a new eight-year, $260 million contract with the Colorado Rockies this week.

Or ask the other teams Harper could have helped—clubs like the Los Angeles Dodgers or New York Yankees or even the Nationals. They gambled every bit as much as the Phillies did, because by the time they realize they could use a star like him, there may not be one available.

The Phillies were gambling every day they waited to sign Harper, taking a risk that one of those other teams would step up with an offer he might choose over theirs. Harper was gambling, too, because while we may never know all the details of the negotiations, there had to be a risk the offers would dry up as the season approached.

In terms anyone from his hometown could understand, he stayed right there at the table and took the risk.

Thursday, he walked away with all the chips.


Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

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