I was at Starbucks, three blocks away from Nats Park, when I got the notification Bryce Harper and the Nationals avoided arbitration. Fortunately, I had yet to receive any coffee and avoided any spillage in my excitement. Bryce is exciting on the field, he’s a superstar, and he’s somehow cured helmet hair!
Today, he signed a deal for the 2018 season worth $21.7 million. There’s also an extra million guaranteed if he reclaims his title of the NL MVP that season. But there are a lot of questions surrounding both the timing and the massive dollar amount. (This is the largest deal ever signed for an arbitration-eligible player.)
Asked how they came up with the number, Rizzo admitted it is tough because not many players provide good comparisons for Harper's market.— Chelsea Janes (@chelsea_janes) May 13, 2017
This is true. There are not a lot of historical comparisons for Bryce’s skill level, marketability, and importance to both the fan base and the clubhouse. Is it possible Bryce is ever-so-slightly overhyped? Sure.
Harper did not play up to expectations last season. Speculation swirled that he was nursing a lingering injury, and he has done very little to combat that perception. The Nats are taking a gamble on which Bryce will show up in 2018. We’re not even halfway through 2017! What if he gets hurt? What if he regresses that season? There is a lot of “What if…”
Rizzo's reasons for doing this now: cost certainty for '18, avoids any complications during arb process next winter, comfort for Harper.— Jorge Castillo (@jorgeccastillo) May 13, 2017
It’s worth looking at how Bryce has fared overall since his rookie season, because I think it played a huge part into how the Nationals approached this deal. From 2013 to 2016, Bryce was fourth in walk rate (15.2 percent), tied for seventh in wOBA (.384), tied for eighth in wRC+ (144), and ninth in overall offensive value (120 runs). All of that includes his “worst” season. He is, quite simply, awesome. Not to mention he’s a great defensive right fielder. Harper has made at least 99.6 percent of all routine plays in right since the 2015 season, and he has a cannon for an arm.
Here's that throw from Harper, 99.7 mph and his hardest throw of the Statcast era pic.twitter.com/RDjaV5JVox— Jamal Collier (@JamalCollier) May 10, 2017
This is a gamble, and perhaps Bryce will underperform in 2018. But I, along with the Nationals front office, doubt it. There is also a shared risk. If he is the NL MVP again, is that season worth even more money? Harper could be leaving money on the table.
Really, this deal is all about assurance and comfort. The Nationals know what they will give Bryce next season, so there is not a ~$20 million question mark on their payroll. Nats GM Mike Rizzo said as much today upon confirming the deal:
“I think it shows the comfort level Bryce has with the organization and that we have with him. It does a lot of good things for us. It gives us cost certainty going into the season next year and next year's payroll."
More than anything, though, it’s a show of good faith on part of the Nationals because they want Bryce to stay in town after the 2018 season. It’s almost like they’re saying, “Look, we believe in you, we trust you to produce, and we don’t want to go into an arbitration hearing and say things that will make you hate us.” Again, take it from Rizzo:
“We have a great relationship with Harp. We love having him around. He's our own. Drafted, developed, signed, been an MVP for us.”
And they want more moments like this:
Speaking of this season, let’s take a peek at his stats. Throughout all of baseball, he’s the fWAR leader (2.4), and ranks second in walk rate (19.9 prevent), eighth in ISO (.345), second in wOBA (.497), and third in wRC+ (207). He’s made all 47 “routine” plays in right field, as well.
This guy is smashing baseballs with a vengeance. He’s throwing out runners at the plate. He’s doing everything you want a superstar to do. And for right now, there’s no pressure to perform any extra to enhance his player value going into arbitration. He just gets to play.
"I love walking into this clubhouse every single day and putting my Nationals uniform on, and I'm going to enjoy this year and next year.”
Us too, Bryce. Us too.