For the last however long we’ve been discussing Bryce Harper’s coronation as King of All Free Agents, the talk has focused on him landing a contract that’s even bigger than his detractors think his ego is. And no matter how you judge the hair flips and bat flips, Harper’s talent was sure to make GMs do back flips in order to ink the 26-year-old superstar. But does a one-year deal actually make more sense than one 10 times longer?
Yes it does, says MLB.com’s Will Leitch in a column that scoffs at conventional wisdom. And he may be going heavy on the sarcasm, but I kinda think he might be serious. A little bit, anyway. My own deadpan has grown such a thick scrim of rust that I really can’t tell any longer.
Citing a top-heavy market, too few suitors, and an industry-wide reluctance to offer long contracts, Leitch argues that Harper’s best bet lies on himself. Over and over again. Go check out the whole thing for the bigger picture, but here’s a snippet of his premise…
And that’s the thing: Harper could do this every year until he has a year that’s great enough — far better than Machado’s 2018 that’s pushing him ahead of Harper in the first place — to get him a long-term deal that suits him. He’s only 26! (Remember: younger than Kris Bryant.) If he has that exceptional season like he had in ’15, like we all know he’s capable of, he’ll have made the best possible free-agent case for himself at the best possible time, just like Machado just did. And Harper will only be six months older in a year than Machado is right now.
Theoretically, Harper could keep betting on himself on short-term deals. And I bet if he plays it right, he makes more money than $400 million over the next 10 years and gets to pick and choose wherever he plays every year, rather than getting stuck on a non-contender like, say, Mike Trout.
There is legitimate logic to this. Teams have clearly shown they will make a short-term contract work for them. Perhaps it is now the players’ turn to do the same thing for themselves. And there may be no better proof of concept than Bryce Harper. C’mon, Bryce. Let’s make this offseason really crazy.
If you put this whole thing under a bell jar and squint just right, it does actually make a little sense. Escalating annual luxury tax limits mean more space for a big deal each year and the lack of commitment might make teams more willing to splurge. The dynamics of such an approach could broaden Harper’s market as well.
But things fall apart when we reintroduce a little air to the argument. The main limiting factor here is security, which Harper would be flushing down the toilet by stringing together one-year deals. And while Leitch cites the star’s up-and-down nature as reason to go short — a monster year could ensure an equally monstrous deal — there’s even greater impetus to lock in the years and money up front.
What if he gets hurt, like we saw last August when a nasty-looking misstep at first left Harper with a bone bruise in his left knee. Say something like that happens during his short-term deal and he’s not fortunate enough to escape without significant damage. That huge contract won’t be available for at least one more year, at which point he’d be that much older and lacking proof of health.
Or what if it’s as simple as a reversal of Harper’s 2018 performance, which saw him put up much better numbers in the second half than the first? Batting .214 after the break, no matter how good his OBP and OPS look, probably wouldn’t have teams lining up to throw $45 million a year at him.
Finally, there’s the idea of going through free agency over and over again. Some might think Harper would actually relish that opportunity, and maybe he would, but surely he can’t be high on the idea of possibly moving and adjusting to a new situation year after year.
So while Leitch’s novel concept makes for a fun topic of conversation, which may have been his main goal in the first place, it proves pretty thin when held up to the light. The ideal situation for Harper and his next team is likely a longer deal with multiple opt-out clauses. That way he’s got the ability to capitalize on a big year by grabbing bigger bucks on a new deal while mitigating fears of injury or poor performance (for him, anyway) with long-term security.
In other words, pretty much what we all thought was going to happen all along. Cool, good talk.