Before midnight strikes Tuesday, the Nationals must decide whether to tender contracts to players eligible for arbitration. Typically, the deadline is a formality. For the Nationals, it involves a tricky question: Will Bryce Harper be eligible for arbitration?
It’s a good time for a reminder of Harper’s unique contractual situation, which Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports also offered today. It could pit the Nationals and Harper – their most marketable star – in a grievance hearing this month.
Harper has logged enough service time to qualify for arbitration as a “Super 2,” a player who ranks in the top 22 percent of players with between two and three years of service time.
But Harper’s five-year major league draft contract, signed at the last minute before the deadline in August 2010, muddles whether he can become eligible for arbitration. Major league draft contracts are no longer allowed, but when they were, almost all of them included an opt-out clause that allowed players to enter the arbitration process rather than take the salary prescribed in their draft deal.
Given the choice, Harper would opt out of the deal and into arbitration. His draft deal stipulates he will earn $1.5 million in base salary in 2015. In arbitration, Harper would make around $2.5 million, according to estimates made at MLBTradeRumors.com.
But whether Harper can choose is in dispute. The Nationals contend that an opt-out clause was not included in Harper’s contract. Harper’s agent, Scott Boras, claims the Nationals orally agreed to include the clause at the midnight deadline in 2010.
MLB and the Players Association stepped in with a solution: If Harper accrued enough service time to become eligible for arbitration, the matter would be decided by a grievance hearing unless the sides could settle.
So far, the sides have not settled. The hearing is scheduled for this month, but it’s not clear when.
It seems as though the Nationals and Harper could find common ground to settle without the hearing, given that the difference in 2015 salary will be just $1 million. But the Lerner family rarely cedes financial ground without a fight, or at least a tough negotiation. And the value at stake could end up being about $5 million – arbitration salaries build off one another, so Harper’s salary this season would impact his 2016 salary, and so on.
If the Nationals tussle with Harper this month, they risk alienating him when he is eligible for free agency after the 2018 season. Their other option is to give him money they may not have to. Soon, we’ll have an answer as to how the odd scenario plays out.