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The Bryce is Right: Building a bargain for Harper

Bryce Harper's eventual free agency promises to obliterate the current record for the largest contract ever. Is there a way to bring his cash price down enough that anyone could afford him?

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Bryce Harper! If you've engaged with baseball at all in the last four years, you know he's very good; if you've engaged in the last nine months, you know he was the best player of 2016 by a large margin. It is the nature of baseball fandom to dream of any and every good player in the uniform of your team, but with a player like Harper, there's only one way for that to happen: free agency. That, in combination with the fact that nothing baseball-related happens in February, means that there's been a lot of discussion of what Harper's contract might look like, and where he might sign it.

This despite the fact that Harper just completed his third year of service time, and won't be available on the open market until at least the 2018–19 offseason. For example, Jeff Passan recently speculated that the lack of spending on the part of the Yankees this offseason is because they're planning a serious run at him. I have trouble believing that – a lot can change in three full seasons, and that's a lot of time to sit out of the free agent market entirely when there's no guarantee Harper even accepts your money – but the idea that the wünderkind is already impacting team behavior is not a crazy one.

After all, GMs are a lot like fans in some ways; they all must have dreamt about Harper at some point, and for good reason. Going into the 2019 season, he'll be all of twenty-six years old, and probably will have accumulated between 35 and 45 WAR. He just had the best 22-year-old season by FanGraphs' WAR since Stan Musial in 1943, long before the advent of free agency and frequent player movement between teams. He's really good, and he's really young, to an unprecedented degree; there's not much more to it than that.

That also means, however, that he'll be really, really expensive. In December, Ted Berg at USA TODAY predicted that Harper would be the first recipient of a $400 million contract, and it wasn't a very controversial statement; the day before, Dave Cameron of FanGraphs said in a chat that it was "very likely" Harper would break $500 million. He's so good that he's automatically out of the normal price range of a vast number of teams. Now, Grant Brisbee recently documented the lack of guaranteed payroll from 2019–2021 for virtually every team, and pointed out that, at this point in time, there's basically no team that can't scrimp and save over the next three years and pony up for Harper. Still, between now and 2019, a lot of teams are going to eliminate themselves from contention for the $500 million man, and the eventual bidding war is likely to involve three to five teams, not 30.

But that's boring! I don't want to live in a world where Harper's choices are that limited, and where 60% of baseball fans know with virtual certainty that Harper won't be gracing their home field with his presence for 81 games of the upcoming season. I want to live in a world where every team can legitimately dream of signing the best young free agent of all-time. To do that, we're going to need to bring his price down, a lot. How?

Luckily, last week my colleague Kevin Ruprecht documented all the non-cash methods of compensation seen in MLB contracts. He also speculated about possible alternatives, drawing from examples in the NBA and NFL, so it's a very interesting and worthwhile read, but I'm going to focus on the methods already extant in baseball. He listed ten:

  • Deferred money
  • Opt-outs and other options (team options, mutual options)
  • No-trade clauses
  • Front-loading / back-loading
  • Playing time / award incentives
  • Injury / DL triggers (C.C. Sabathia, John Lackey)
  • Split contracts (X salary in the minors, Y salary in the majors)
  • Signing bonuses
  • Perks (suites on the road, season ticket suites for family as examples)
  • Guaranteed job with team after retirement

Those vary in worth, a lot, but they all serve to change the amount of cash paid out by the team while maintaining the overall value of the contract. Some aren't helpful to us, as they're a negative to the player (injury/DL triggers) or just don't apply to Harper's situation (split minor/major league salaries, jobs with teams after retirement). The useful ones are those that involve the team taking on more risk (and giving Harper more security), or giving Harper more control over his situation. Some of those seem possible or even likely to end up in Harper's eventual contract. If we stack enough of them up, can we conceive of a Harper contract that both values him fairly and is legitimately payable by most teams?

Step one is to determine the value the contract needs to reach. The time frame discussed most often is 10 years, which is a nice, round number, but also a plausible one. When people have discussed the eventual cash value of such a contract, it's been in the $400 to $500 million range, as discussed above, but I think that's often assuming he'll have several contract perks already. Since we want to start with pure cash and work our way down from there, let's take 10 years, $500 million as the baseline. Step two is to determine the goal, which I'll arbitrarily put at 10 years, $350 million. That would still give Harper the highest annual salary ever, while also being small enough that basically every team could find room on their books for it.

With the parameters set, we can move to the perks. The first is probably the most obvious, especially after this offseason; an opt-out, or more likely numerous opt-outs. Opt-outs tend to be positioned so that the player retains long-term security, but gains the upside of being able to re-enter free agency at a time in their career when they'd still be highly valuable, and the combination of control and security is a valuable one. Our baseline, 10-year contract would have Harper hitting free agency again going into his age-36 season, likely too late to command another mammoth deal. Jason Heyward just signed a contract going into his age-26 season, like Harper will, and he negotiated two opt-outs, going into his age-29 and age-30 seasons, and the real Harper contract will likely feature something similar.

There were a few attempts at estimating the value of the opt-outs in contracts signed this winter, including this one at MLB Trade Rumors by Matt Swartz. He pegged the single opt-outs in the David Price and Johnny Cueto contracts at about $17 million, and the two opt-outs in Heyward's contract at about $25 million. All three of those contracts were much smaller than this hypothetical Harper contract, and the greater dollar amount involved likely means greater dollar values to opt-outs for Harper. That said, there are diminishing returns, especially if a player is very likely to exercise the first and never get to any subsequent ones, as shown in the Heyward calculation, which limits how much value we can pump into Harper's contract via opt-outs.

Let's go nuts, and give him one every year from year three on, or seven in total. This means that Harper can choose exactly when to enter free agency. Did Harper have a down season, or miss 100 games to injury? Is the luxury tax threshold increasing next offseason? Then he can wait a year before re-entering the market. Or, most likely, he can leave after the third year and sign another long-term, high value contract. And should disaster strike, and he turn into Allen Craig or some similarly terrible player, he can still collect his paycheck for the next seven years.

As I said, there are diminishing returns to opt-outs, but this gives Harper incredible control over his future, so let's peg the value of these at a whopping $75 million. That puts the current contract at 10-years, $425 million, with opt-outs after years three through nine. Not bad! Not to the goal yet, though, so we press on.

The next non-monetary perk is possibly more common than the opt-out: the no-trade clause. A no-trade clause allows a player to veto a trade involving himself, either to a specific set of teams (a limited no-trade) or to any team at all (a full no-trade). They restrict the team's options, should it ever want to trade the player, and give the player extra leverage in those situations. Frequently, they're used so the player can have input on where he is traded to, not to scuttle a trade altogether. As with opt-outs, they give a player control over his future even after signing a contract, which makes them quite valuable.

Harper is very unlikely to be traded, though, and this hypothetical contract already gives him a ton of control, which reduces the impact of a no-trade clause. If he didn't have any opt-outs, a trade could change up to nine years of his life; here, he can always elect for free agency after one season if he hates the place he was traded. Still, he'd surely like to exert some influence over a trade process, so it's not worthless.

Unlike opt-outs, no-trade clauses gain their value from soft factors, like making you more likely to be traded to a city with lovely weather or a team with your friends on it, which makes the value harder to precisely estimate. That means I can just guess! I'm going to peg it at $25 million, or 5% of the total value of this contract, which feels reasonable. Harper is now signing a 10-year, $400 million contract with seven opt-outs and a full no-trade. Progress, but still a long way to go.

But we're running out of high-value bells and whistles to add. We might as well get the basic bonuses out of the way: Harper gets his own hotel suite on every road trip, first pick of locker in the clubhouse, and a whole section of seats known as "Harper's Hangout" (maybe "Bryce's Bungalow") that he can give to friends and family for any game. Over the course of the contract, this kind of stuff is maybe worth another $15 million? Give or take? Again, we're in uncharted territory here, so I'm basically picking numbers that seem reasonable, which means you can't tell me I'm wrong. These additional perks push the cash value down to $385 million.

Then what? Harper can play for our team for as few as three years or as many as ten, and pick whatever number in between he likes. He can veto any trade, bring his whole extended family to every game, and sit wherever he wants in the dugout. What's left to give, to get us the last $35 million?

I can see basically one thing: make him player-manager. Heck, make him player-manager-general manager if he wants it. Now, I don't mean give him complete control over the direction of the team, but promise to consult him and give any of his opinions serious consideration. Harper wants to play center field, hit ninth, and bunt all the time? Let him! Thinks you should trade for his good friend Max Scherzer in his age-40 season? Get it done! It's not clear how much Harper would actually want this level of responsibility or power, but I think it's safe to say he wouldn't turn it down. Again, we're picking values out of a hat here, but assuming this, despite its rarity, isn't actually something Harper deeply desires, $35 million seems fine.

And we're done! The final verdict: 10 years, $350 million, opt-outs after years three through nine, a full no-trade, a pile of perks, and player-coach status. Now, this is not a realistic contract, and if this exercise makes anything clear, it's that even with the rise of non-cash forms of compensation in contracts, Harper is going to cost an arm and a leg. Can any time be eliminated from the Harper contest yet? Certainly not. Is everyone going to be able to afford him, come 2019? Also no. Unless he's looking to take on an ownership stake...

. . .

Henry Druschel is a contributor to Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @henrydruschel.