There was once a time when this was considered to be the greatest free agent class of all-time, as long ago as that may have seemed. Jose Fernandez, Matt Harvey, Josh Donaldson, Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Andrew McCutchen, and Clayton Kershaw were all going to be hitting the free market, and it looked like we would finally get a free agent bonanza akin to the NBA, where the swing of said offseason could fundamentally change the league’s landscape.
How much has changed since then. One is deceased, very sadly, and then there are quite a few flame-outs and under-performers: Harvey is a non-factor, reclamation project pitcher now; McCutchen is good-but-not-great; Kershaw opted in (and re-negotiated) to a deal signed years ago; and, Donaldson is decent but not healthy. All that is really left is Machado and Harper, and now we turn to Harper, whose landscape has also changed quite a bit.
Regardless of whether you think he is overrated or not, he is still one of the more mythical figures of modern baseball. The legend began in his age-17 season when he enrolled in Junior College in Nevada, where he hit 31 home runs in 66 games, winning both league player of the year and the 2010 Golden Spikes Award.
He was then drafted first overall by the Nationals, capping off a rebuild cycle that saw them also draft Stephen Strasburg in the previous year. Scott Boras and the team agreed to a $15.1 million deal, a record for the time.
Harper rocketed up to the big leagues by just his age-19 season, making him the youngest player in baseball at the time, and I believe, he stayed the youngest for a couple of years thereafter. He made an All-Star game in just his first season, won Rookie of the Year, and hit .270/.340/.477 with 22 home runs and serious hustle in center field. He was everything as advertised.
After that was where the fairy tale story got a bit more circuitous and frustrating. He played just 118 games in 2013 after undergoing knee surgery to remove a bursa sac, and then just 100 games in 2014 after tearing an ulnar collateral ligament in his thumb.
He then followed that up with a 2015 season that was one of the greatest of all-time, putting up a monstrous, Ruthian, 197 wRC+, 9.3 fWAR, and won the NL MVP his first and only time. Since then he has hit .267/.391/.505, which, while more than acceptable for any player, is kind of a strange line to see from someone who will sign the biggest deal of all-time.
And don’t get it twisted, because even though you think that he’s overrated, he absolutely will sign the biggest deal of all-time, bigger than Giancarlo Stanton’s $325 million mega-deal signed just a few years ago. Here’s why.
In the age of post-steroids, free agents after 30 have essentially had their value deflated. They have produced less than that period, sure, but more analytically-inclined front offices have decided that paying those players is just an incredibly “inefficient” use of resources. That leaves the only surer bets as young free agents, which is why even someone like Jason Heyward got $184 million. It’s because he was young.
Harper doesn’t have the issue of relying on defense; in fact, it’s the opposite. In 2016 and 2017, Harper tabulated -4 and -5 Outs Above Average, respectively. This year it was a paltry and eye-opening -12, which changes the conversation a bit. While he came into the league as a center fielder who could do everything, he is now, essentially, a 1B/OF type that will rely on power more than defense at all. What’s weird about that is his sprint speed actually hasn’t declined whatsoever, so it’s very possible it’s a fluke. But if a team signs just the first base type and not the outfielder, then they’re in for a world of trouble.
Which is why I predict that no matter who he signs with—Yankees, Cubs, Phillies, or Nationals—the fans will be disappointed. They’ll be disappointed because every big contract is; there is always a disconnect between how fans perceive value and how teams do, and this one will feel ever-more-egregious because of how “overrated” he is. But teams don’t overrate players how they used to even five years ago, so please forgive me by saying that argument is dumb, and teams really aren’t.
The fact is that his most similar comps are the following players:
Do you want a possible Hall of Fame player on your team, is the question? Teams make hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars every year, and maybe Harper doesn’t look too hot in the year 2025, but global warming will likely have started devouring us by then so it may not even matter. We’re here now, in 2018 going on 2019, and Harper will make your team possibly five wins better now, well worth it by market terms the $35 million or so he will be paid, and there is still the chance that if the conditions are right, he drops another 2015 season and all of the overrated concerns go into the wind.
Or he flops, and then the conversation changes. Because there is no historical precedent for great players that young becoming such early flops, so then maybe our younger game has a different aging curve entirely? That’s not my bet, and I would bet decent, small amounts of money that this is the second-to-last, or third-to-last deal Harper signs before he walks into Cooperstown.