Bryce Harper turned town a 10-year, $300 million contract from the Nationals in late September, Chelsea Janes of The Washington Post reported earlier this week.
The offer would have been the second-largest contract of any type in Major League Baseball history, behind Giancarlo Stanton’s 13-year, $325 million deal, and it would have been the largest free agent signing in Major League Baseball history, surpassing Alex Rodriguez’s 10-year, $275 million deal.
But Harper was absolutely right to decline it.
In the aftermath of Janes’ report, many on Twitter wrote responses along the lines of, “Harper should have taken his money. $300 million is a lot of money.” While $300 million is, indeed, a lot of money, Harper was never going to take it.
The Nationals made two critical errors in their offer to Harper, and neither have to do with the amount of money that they offered. This remains true even despite Harper’s agent, Scott Boras, saying that Harper could secure a deal worth over $400 million.
The first of these two errors was the lack of opt-outs. An opt-out clause is one of the most valuable provisions in a baseball contract. Why? It gives the player complete control over their future earnings. In an event where Harper has an opt-out after his third season, he may earn in the ballpark of $90 million (or more) over the next three years before having the opportunity to test free agency again when he would be just 29. If Harper showed more consistency over those three years (his “inconsistency” has been one of the biggest arguments against him), he might be able to turn his second contract after the opt-out into another $300+ million deal.
Harper is a near-lock to be guaranteed at least one, if not more, opt-outs in his new deal this offseason. The Nationals could have attempted to front-load Harper’s deal with an opt-out after three years. Yes, this may further incentivize him to take the opt-out in 2021. But, a structure like this would give Harper the financial and long-term stability that he desires while also being a legitimately competitive offer:
- Three-years, $105 million ($35 million AAV)
- Seven-years, $195 million ($27.9 million AAV)
It’s hard to know whether Harper could earn more than $35 million per year on a long-term deal this offseason, but I think that a deal structured in this manner is one that would be enticing to him. In my mind, Harper would view this as a three-year, $105 million deal with a $195 million insurance plan — he wants to play well enough that he will be able to opt out, but if he can’t, then he’s got $195 million still in the bag. In this scenario, Harper could still end up earning more than $400 million in total if he plays his cards correctly.
That was just the first issue with the Nationals’ offer. The second is the fact that it did not include a no-trade clause.
The Nationals have been reluctant to give out no-trade clauses to any of their players. In fact, the only player on the Nationals’ roster given full no-trade protection under their current contract is Ryan Zimmerman, who earned it in 2014 with an extension he signed in 2012. (Zimmerman would have earned no-trade protection in 2015 under his 10-and-5 rights anyway.) Stephen Strasburg has limited no-trade protection under his current deal, and he will become a 10-and-5 player in 2020. Not even Max Scherzer has a no-trade clause, even under his enormous seven-year, $210 million deal signed in January 2015.
No-trade clauses, though, offer value to a player that goes beyond the price tag. I don’t know what Harper’s final contract will look like, but the vast majority of long-term, high-priced contracts include a no-trade clause. This is so that the player has a say in where they will be playing over the length of the deal; no player wants to commit to a 10-year contract with the risk that they could be traded as soon as his current team becomes non-competitive. Without a no-trade clause, there was no chance that the Nationals were going to sign Harper.
These two factors, of course, are just speculation. I don’t know what Harper’s ultimate contract will look like. Perhaps he rejected the Nationals’ offer for neither of these reasons and just because he does want more money. Or, perhaps he wants to play somewhere else other than Washington, D.C. and won’t take any offer the Nationals give him. Or, perhaps he just wants to test the market and see what he may command. Regardless, the Bryce Harper sweepstakes have begun.
Devan Fink is a Featured Writer for Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.