It is going to be expensive for the Washington Nationals to lock up their young superstar, Bryce Harper, after a breakout season made him the youngest unanimous most valuable player in baseball history. Harper will make $5 million in 2016, is eligible for arbitration beginning in 2017 and doesn’t become a free agent until 2019.
During an interview with 106.7 The Fan’s Grant Paulsen and Danny Rouhier, Paulsen said he talked to an executive during the offseason who suggested Harper could be the game’s first $400 million player. But Harper may be right when he said “don’t sell me short.”
“You’re gonna have the first 500 gazillion-dollar contract,” F.P. Santangelo, color analyst for the Nationals, told Harper in December. “I’m gonna make that comment, that statement, right now. I’m guaranteeing it.”
I can’t tell you how many zeros there are in 500 gazillion dollars, but I do know that Harper won’t get that much. He should get the richest contract ever awarded to a baseball player, which is currently held by Miami slugger Giancarlo Stanton at $325 million.
At the age of 22, Bryce Harper led the majors in on-base percentage (.460) and slugging (.649), becoming the third-youngest player since 1900 to lead the majors in both categories. Only Ty Cobb (1909) and Stan Musial (1941) did it at a younger age, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Harper also tied for the league lead in home runs (42) and had the second-best average in the National League (.330).
The power spike can be attributed to his ability to pull the ball. In 2014 that accounted for 38.9 percent of balls put in play, this past season his percentage soared to 45.4 percent, the ninth-highest rate in the National League.
Harper’s improvement wasn’t all in his swing: his walk rate went from 9.6 to 19.0 percent in one year while his strikeout rate dropped form 26.3 to 20.0 percent. And that helped produce 9.5 wins above replacement, the most of any player in baseball last season. Steamer projections have Harper batting .301 with 34 home runs and 98 RBI, producing 6.6 wins above replacement.
It was calculated in 2013 that one marginal win is worth $7 million, while Fangraphs assesses Harper’s 2015 campaign of 9.5 fWAR to be worth $75.9 million on the open market, making it closer to $8 million per win in today’s free agent environment. If we use an aging curve which keeps Harper’s projected production steady until age 27, then subtract 0.25 fWAR each year from ages 28 to 33, all while increasing the cost of a win in free agency by 5 percent each year, Harper would be worth over $600 million through 2025.
But before you balk at the price tag, consider that the Nationals have already received $145.8 million in value for which they will have paid $15.15 million — and that includes all of Harper’s salary for 2016 even before he sees a single pitch.