The future home of Bryce Harper has long induced a mixture of fantasy and foreboding within Washington Nationals fans. They can picture a Curly W engraved on the cap of his Cooperstown plaque, the culmination of a career spent in the nation’s capital, the city he referred to Thursday night as “my town.” They also can picture Harper prowling the outfield for some other team, perhaps wearing the pinstripes of the New York Yankees, the team he adored in his youth. The only downside to Harper’s greatness is bearing the thought of him displaying it someplace else.
The question of whether Harper will leave or stay has loomed since the Nationals drafted him with the first overall pick in 2010. It is no longer so far away. The Nationals control Harper’s contractual rights for three more seasons. But the National League Most Valuable Player award Harper won Thursday night underscores not only his greatness and remaining potential, but also the urgency the Nationals face to sign him long-term.
“I’m definitely very excited to be part of the Nationals organization,” Harper said after accepting his award. “I think that being able to play in that stadium, play for this city, this town, being around the fans, it’s such a great place to play. It’s a monumental town. Everything happens there. I think baseball is up-and-coming. The things that we’ve the last couple years have been a lot of fun for us.”
Since his rookie season, Harper has mentioned his desire to play for one team his entire career. Thursday night, he extolled the work of General Manager Mike Rizzo and the hiring of Manager Dusty Baker.
“I have a couple more years in D.C., and hopefully at the end of that, we can do what we can and maybe be a National for life,” Harper said. “We’ll see.”
While Harper cannot enter free agency until after the 2018 season, he has reached the stage of his career when teams and star players discuss long-term accords. Mike Trout, the closest thing the American League has to Harper, signed an extension before the 2014 season, when he was four years from free agency. Players rarely sign contract extensions one year before reaching free agency, when temptation grows strong to test an open market. If the Nationals want to sign Harper before they have to compete with 29 bidders, they likely need to do so this winter or next.
“We want Bryce to be here for a long, long time,” Rizzo said at this month’s general managers meetings. “We love the guy. We’ve got him locked in for the near future, and we certainly would love for him to be a National for life. I think he likes being in D.C. I think he loves playing for the Nationals. He loves the city of D.C. I think that bodes well for us.”
The Post polled a half-dozen executives, who were granted anonymity to speak freely about another team’s player, about what a contract for Harper would look like if the Nationals struck a deal this winter. All expressed skepticism that Scott Boras, Harper’s high-profile agent, would agree to a deal, based on his penchant for taking clients to free agency. The estimates ranged from relatively conservative (six years, $180 million) to breathtakingly astronomical (15 years, $450 million with an opt-out for Harper).
“It’s a risky time to work on an extension because he’s coming off a historically amazing season,” one AL executive said. “You are buying very high right now. On the flip side, as he continues to make more money and get closer to free agency, he accumulates more cash, and an extension that pays him less than open-market value is less appealing.”
A matter of timing
Because of Harper’s MVP 2015 performance, this offseason may be the costliest time for the Nationals to approach Harper. Because of his current contractual situation, it may be the perfect moment.
Harper’s salary is artificially suppressed in a way it will not be again, giving the Nationals leverage that, in coming years, will evaporate. Harper will make $5 million in 2016, the result of a two-year deal he signed entering last season to avoid a messy dispute over a complex contractual issue stemming from the deal he signed out of the draft in 2010 as a 17-year-old.
Harper signed his current two-year deal coming off an injury-plagued season, and it guaranteed him a measure of security. Had he simply agreed on a one-year pact and entered arbitration this winter, though, he could have banked upward of $10 million next season.
“Each side has leverage here,” the AL executive said. “Harper still hasn’t made very much money, and the Nats would love to lock in some free agent years of his.”
The executive did not venture a specific guess at what a Harper deal would look like, saying it would be “hard to put a number on it” because of the varying structures a contract could be patterned after. Not surprisingly, the two recent contracts extensions executives pointed to as starting points for a deal with Harper were signed by two of the best players in baseball: Trout and Giancarlo Stanton.
Before opening day 2014, two-plus seasons into his career at age 22, Trout signed a six-year, $144.5 million extension with the Los Angeles Angels.
Based on Trout’s deal, an American League official estimated the Nationals and Harper could agree on a six-year, $180 million pact. In his scenario, specifically, Harper would receive $15 million in 2017 and $25 million in 2018 to cover his final two years of arbitration, and then $35 million per year over four would-be free agent seasons. No hitter has ever signed a pact guaranteeing him $35 million in a season, and such a contract would spit Harper back into the open market at age 28.
“I just felt like he’d still want to get another in-prime free agent” contract, the AL official said.
Based on his history and prior comments, Boras may be inclined to seek a longer-term deal. During the 2013 season at Nationals Park, Boras waxed about elite players signing 12-year contracts. After Trout signed with the Angels, Boras indicated, in memorable and comical fashion, he did not view Trout’s extension as a template for Harper.
“I have the pleasure and privilege of watching Mike Trout play every night,” Boras said then. “I think he’s a very special cup of tea, for which he is deserving of a completely different brew. While few, I definitely consider Bryce Harper as part of the next generation of elite brand of teas. Certainly as a studied connoisseur, I may hold a differing opinion as to the availability, demand and value of tea futures.”
Thus, the more likely model is Stanton. Last year, with two years remaining before he reached fee agency, the Miami Marlins signed Stanton to a 13-year, $325-million contract, the richest deal in baseball history. Stanton can opt out of the contract after six seasons, providing both security and another chance to hit the market if he chooses. Boras has negotiated opt-out clauses into extensions before, most notably with Texas shortstop Elvis Andrus.
One AL executive said free agent outfielder Jason Heyward’s contract could have an impact on how Boras views the market. Heyward is a free agent at 26, the same age Harper will be after the 2018 season. Boras could use Heyward’s contract as a launching pad. Harper is already a far better and more destructive hitter. Economics outside the game (inflation) and inside (rising revenues) will dictate how he views the figures of Heyward’s deal relative to three years from now, when Harper will be eligible for free agency.
It is natural to compare players with their peers to arrive at an expected compensation. Some players, though rare, make the comparisons irrelevant.
Re-setting the market
In the late 1990s, Boras represented Alex Rodriguez, a former No. 1 overall pick who laid waste to the major leagues at an age when most prospects remained in the minors. After his fourth season, the Seattle Mariners offered him a $70 million contract extension, which would have shattered the record deal for a player signed before reaching free agency. The Mariners seethed when he turned it down.
The next winter, with Rodriguez a year away from hitting free agency at 25, the Mariners offered him $120 million, by far the richest contract at the history of baseball at the time. Boras and Rodriguez turned it down. The Mariners told them they were crazy. In August 2000, Chipper Jones, a perennial all-star at age 28 just months from free agency, re-signed with the Braves for $90 million over six years.
In January, Rodriguez signed a 10-year deal with the Texas Rangers worth $252 million.
Harper, some believe, is poised to blow up the market the way Rodriguez did. One National League executive guessed the Nationals would have to commit $30 million per season over 15 years this winter to lock up Harper — a total of $450 million, or 38-percent more than the deal Stanton signed to make him the highest-paid player ever.
“It’s an ownership decision,” the NL executive said. “If it goes well, Harper would define the franchise for years, and the owners would make their money back and then some in franchise value. But you’d have to also tell them, ‘I can’t tell you there’s not going to be risk.’ ”
An NL general manager said that kind of deal would be imprudent, even for a player of Harper’s caliber. Giving one player $40 million per season, he reasoned, ties up too much payroll in one roster spot and prevents a well-rounded team. Rodriguez excelled on mediocre and poor teams in Texas until the Rangers traded him to the Yankees, the rare team with the financial might to surround him and his contract with suitable complements.
But Boras could demand such a figure because of the sport’s economics. In March, Forbes estimated the Nationals to be worth $1.28 billion, an increase of 48 percent from the previous year. By 2018, according to some estimates, revenues in baseball could approach $14 billion. Harper would have to trade some earning potential in order to gain the security of a long-term deal now. But that earning potential in Boras’s view, because of the direction of the sport and Harper’s uncommon place it in, might be greater than the Nationals – or anyone else – could anticipate.
Television contracts play a major role in the sport’s finances, which for the Nationals prevents an obstacle. They suffered a major setback last month in their legal fight with MASN and the Baltimore Orioles over how much money they should receive in rights fees. Their television contract with the Orioles, put into place by Major League Baseball before the Lerners purchased the team, ensures they cannot reap profits from their rights fees as much as other teams in their situation could.
The fate of MASN and Harper are intertwined. It’s why Boras, in December 2014, attended one of the New York Supreme Court hearings in New York regarding MASN.
Owing to the primacy of television networks, the Yankees – again – loom over the Nationals’ hopes to lock down Harper before he reaches free agency. It has less to do with childhood dreams than branding and television ratings. Star players drive ratings, and the Yankees derive more money from huge ratings than any other franchise owing to the YES Network, of which it owns a 20-percent stake. In that way, Harper may be more valuable to the Yankees than to any other team. The money the Yankees could be willing to offer Harper in three years now matters to any negotiations this winter.
The Nationals’ payroll outlook is favorable. They have few expensive long-term commitments blocking future flexibility. This winter, they will see free agents Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmermann, homegrown players they at one point hoped to sign long-term, leave via free agency. Their only current commitments past 2018 are Ryan Zimmerman and Max Scherzer.
The factors at play suggest any deal for Harper will lean closer toward astronomical than conservative, and in fact seem more likely to push him toward free agency. But the Nationals have their opportunity to make Harper a Washington staple for years to come. Even if they cannot, they don’t have to imagine him playing in their uniform.
“It’s hard to say an exact number, because there are so many kinds of different structures that could make sense,” an American League executive said. “But figuring out what to do with Bryce Harper after you have him for three more years is a pretty nice problem to have.”
James Wagner and Barry Svrluga contributed to this report.