Scott Boras has a binder for Bryce Harper, as he does for most of his top-dollar clients. It’s divided into a handful of sections and populated with carefully curated PowerPoint slides, positioned just so. Every once in a while, as he flips through it, the agent realizes a page might make his argument better if placed just before this one, or just after that one. So he unlocks the three rings, takes out a sheet and moves it.
Boras and his staff have trimmed the Harper binder from its original length of 100-plus pages. Every second of the sales pitch has to be perfect. Every moment of every meeting must exorcise any lingering doubt over Harper’s baseball immortality. Even perennial all-stars don’t get record-breaking deals, and Boras does not want to break records with Harper’s contract. He wants to shatter them.
Baseball has a long-standing affinity for round numbers, so $400 million always seemed like the mythical target price for whichever star was good enough to lead the sport into its next salary frontier. Some executives scoff at the notion that Harper is the man to hit that number — or that anyone is, at the moment. But Boras would argue that $400 million is not only a reasonable figure for Harper, but a conservative one.
Most of the pages of that binder don’t deal with the money. One section is dedicated to Harper’s uniqueness, to demonstrating that he is one of the most prolific young talents this game has ever seen. The only active players who had more homers by age 25 are Albert Pujols and Mike Trout. In other words, if you buy Harper, you’re buying 10 years or so of a Hall of Fame-caliber player in his prime.
Another section of the binder is dedicated to his potential, as defined by the remarkable numbers he compiled in 2015. If you buy Harper, not only are you getting one of the most talented young players of all time, but also a guy with the ability to put up once-in-a-lifetime numbers. How many other players have compiled an on-base-plus-slugging percentage of 1.109 for an entire season? Only one in the past decade: Albert Pujols.
But those sections exist to support a basic financial argument: Harper, according to Boras, is worth more than anyone ever has been — far more, in fact. He is unique, and precedent hardly applies to his free agent case.
Any agent can manipulate statistics to support his player’s cause. Any savvy general manager would counter with the statistics that make Harper seem more average — such as the fact that he owns just the 34th-most FanGraphs wins above replacement in baseball since 2016, one slot ahead of Trea Turner. Boras has argued many times that WAR isn’t a good statistic for Harper because it doesn’t treat outfielders well, but Trout, also an outfielder, leads the majors in WAR in that span.
So how will Boras get teams to bite?
First, he won’t go to those savvy GMs. He will sell to ownership. An investment this big, Boras will argue, is a franchise-wide investment — an investment in a brand, in increased merchandise sales and in notoriety. An investment this big could change the future of a franchise. He will try to convince owners, the only people who don’t have to convince the GM before making an investment like that.
Second, he will argue that most people are looking at Harper’s free agency all wrong. Most baseball pundits have tossed out Giancarlo Stanton’s 13-year, $325 million deal as the baseline for a Harper contract. Boras would argue that those pundits are missing the point.
Stanton signed an extension. Harper is a free agent. The Miami Marlins had years left of control of Stanton and could therefore manipulate his contract down from where it could have been. Harper has the right to maximize his value, and everyone in the market can compete to help him do so.
So what, then, is the biggest free agent deal in recent history? Boras doesn’t measure by total value, but by average annual value. By that measure, right-hander Zack Greinke’s six-year deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks made him the highest-paid player in baseball history, with an average annual value of roughly $34 million over six years. So if Greinke is the precedent, Harper should get at least $340 million over 10 years.
But Greinke isn’t the right precedent, Boras will argue. He’s a baseline. Harper plays every day. He provides more value, more star power (and regular power), draws more crowds and changes more games than Greinke. Starting pitchers generally garner big deals because of their scarcity, but would anyone argue that Harper isn’t worth a few million dollars more annually than Greinke? Say, $4 million or $5 million more?
That argument brings Boras to an average annual value of $39 million or so — or $390 million over 10 years. Suddenly, $400 million doesn’t feel so out of reach. Create the notion that a few teams are bidding $39 million, or talk a team or two into thinking Harper is worth $6 million or $7 million more than Greinke annually instead of $4 million or $5 million, and out comes a 10-year deal worth $400 million.
For that logic to hold, Boras has incentive for Harper to sign before shortstop Manny Machado, despite widespread industry speculation that Machado could be the first free agent domino to fall.
But what if Machado signs a deal with a lower AAV than Greinke’s? Even a 10-year deal worth $310 million — $1 million per year more than what the Nationals offered Harper in September — would be the biggest free agent deal in baseball history, but that would establish an AAV for Machado of $31 million. Is Harper worth $9 million a year more? That argument might be more difficult. Precedent matters.
Boras needs only one team to bite, to see reason to overpay or to buy into Harper as a once-in-a-generation talent to make that $400 million figure seem a lot more realistic. The question, of course, is whether that team exists — and if it does, does Harper want to coexist with it?
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