It started with a small question. Scott Boras turned the conversation into a dissertation on the future of baseball’s economic structure and how it could lead the Nationals to sign client Bryce Harper – without ever mentioning his name – to a 12-year contract.
Boras and several members of his staff will spend the next three days at Nationals Park, a routine visit with their many clients and with the Nationals’ front office. Boras held court with reporters next to the Nationals’ dugout and broached the idea, in an abstract yet clear manner, of the Nationals keeping their young stars – Harper and Stephen Strasburg – in Washington with unprecedented contracts.
The topic surfaced when a reporter asked Boras if he would be open to signing Strasburg to a contract extension. Boras has openly opposed the league-wide trend of signing young players to contract extensions that buy out their initial years of free agent eligibility. But what about a three-year deal to take him through arbitration eligibility?
“I’m more into 12-year deals for young players,” Boras replied. “The M.O. is, you want to keep them in the franchise, and you want to be there for the fans and be a marquee for them. So why not?”
Based on past actions, Harper would probably be open to the notion of signing the longest contract in baseball history. He has already broken molds in his young career, skipping two years of high school to enroll in a junior college and enter professional baseball a year early. Last year, he spoke about his desire to stay in one city his entire career.
“You look at Cal Ripken. You look at Derek Jeter. You look at all the greats that played for one team their whole career,” Harper said in the middle of last season. “I want to be like that. I’ve always wanted to be like that. I’ve always wanted to play with that same team.”
Boras discussed the idea of Harper signing a mega-contract more as an abstract concept than a negotiation that’s about to happen. Again, he did not once mention Harper by name. He was, however, asked about Harper by name, and his willingness to sign a creative, long-term deal.
“When you have extraordinary talent, you have to really think out of the box,” Boras said. “Because it’s something no one else in your league has. That concept is always something that will be received by few and looked down upon by many. But when you go back and look at decision-making and what the cores of franchises are, you have to figure out a way to keep five or six rather than one or two.”
Boras’s argument in favor of a decade-or-longer contract came down to baseball’s current financial structure. In the mid-90s, the Indians became the first team to lock up young stars with contract extensions before they hit free agency, the player trading an open market for earlier security. A few teams followed. By now, it has become a model – one the Nationals followed with Ryan Zimmerman, signing him to two contract extensions before he turned 29.
The challenge for teams, in Boras’s mind, has become how to find the next vanguard for securing players first.
“My thing is, if equilibrium is X, you better be figuring out Y,” Boras said. “When you’re doing what everybody else is doing, you’ve built the road to let probabilities take over, not the intellect.
“There are some models that if you have great young players, particularly position players, you’re going to have to do something different if you’re going to be a team of distinction. Everybody is following the same model now. That means there’s going to be more creativity by few that I think is going to give those teams an advantage under this system. As players grow to understand the value points of the contract structure, there’s going to have to be some creative things done by ownership to obtain those players. If not, the structure isn’t working for any players, especially the most talented. Not as I see it, anyway, given the revenues.”
And baseball’s revenues have boomed. The money coming into the game, thanks to lucrative regional and national television rights deals, has nearly doubled since 2007. The payrolls, meantime, have remained largely static.
Boras seemed to be sending a clear message to Nationals’ ownership: Oh, you want to lock up Harper? Well, then you’re gonna have to REALLY lock him up.
“If you go back and you look for star players, what they usually do over those years, you have to say that’s a pretty good bet,” Boras said. When you’re getting into years that are short-term for young players, I don’t know what the value that would be for a player, when you talk about buying out free agent deals.”
Boras also pointed the value both players and teams derive from longstanding partnerships.
“There is value in those relationships, obviously,” Boras said. “We know one thing. A model where players couldn’t go anywhere, the fans would go see the same players for a decade. They loved that: ‘These are our guys.’ When I was a kid, I saw Willie Mays all the time. You knew who the Giants were. Because their talent level was so extreme, that wasn’t changing for 10 years. Everything centered around the core. It’s much easier build a team around that.”
The idea of a 12-year contract for Bryce Harper brings to mind so many questions. The first, of course, is how much it would pay him? And how in the heck would the side even begin to figure out a number?
“I think it’s very easy,” Boras said.
“It’s always about information,” Boras said. “The two sides have to talk about what their concerns are. You have to talk about a whole industry-wide view on what’s good for you and what’s good for the player. When you have these media conglomerates, there’s a definite value for particular players that is well beyond the performance value of a player.”
I have no idea where the sides would even begin. Given the growing revenues in the game and Harper’s star power, a 12-year deal would have to pay Harper something in the $300 million range. An average annual value of $30 million would mean a 12-year, $360 million deal. That just sounds ridiculous. Boras, in his unique way, made it sound easy.
“They know these players are going to be very good for a long time,” Boras said. “Then you have to calculate injury, which you can insure against. You can buy insurance policies for that. So then you’re trusting the equilibrium of the player’s abilities and trusting also the fact that he has the psychology to take on a major commitment to come out and play hard and execute that contract well. That’s certainly part of our job.”