Harper’s deal, which will become official once he passes a physical, with one of the Nationals’ biggest rivals surpassed Giancarlo Stanton’s 13-year, $325 million extension with the Miami Marlins in 2014 as the largest contract in the history of major North American sports. But agent Scott Boras fell short of making Harper the game’s highest-paid player by annual salary.
The Phillies had been considered the favorites to sign Harper, 26, for much of the winter, owing in part to a November remark by owner John Middleton, who told USA Today he was willing to be “a little stupid” with his spending this winter. Talks intensified in recent weeks, and the Phillies ultimately held off late efforts by the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants.
In recent weeks, the lack of a deal, despite the Phillies’ obvious interest and considerable resources, led to widespread speculation Harper did not want to play in Philadelphia and preferred a West Coast destination, closer to his Las Vegas home. But not only did Harper ultimately choose the Phillies, with a contract that won’t end until after 2031, he also agreed to a deal with a full no-trade clause and no opt-outs — signs that he intends to spend the rest of his career with the team.
As National League East rivals, the Phillies play the Nationals 19 times this season, with Harper’s first appearance at Nationals Park coming April 2.
The Nationals offered Harper a 10-year, $300 million contract near the end of the 2018 season — a deal that, notably, would have given Harper a higher average annual value than the one he ultimately got from the Phillies. However, according to multiple people in the industry, the Nationals’ offer also contained deferrals of up to $100 million, to be paid out over decades — so much deferred money that Major League Baseball raised concerns. Such deferred payments would have significantly reduced its present-day value. Harper’s Phillies contract, by comparison, contains no deferrals.
Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Zack Greinke remains the highest-paid player in the game, by average annual value, at $34.4 million per year, while Colorado Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado, who this week signed an eight-year, $260 million extension with the Colorado Rockies, is the highest-paid position player, at $32.5 million. According to salary data at Spotrac, Harper’s average annual value of $25.4 million will rank 11th in the majors in 2019.
For the Phillies, who haven’t had a winning season since the last of their five straight division titles in 2011, the Harper signing culminates a whirlwind winter — one that made good on Middleton’s November vow — in which they added not only Harper, the 2015 NL most valuable player, but also outfielder Andrew McCutchen, reliever David Robertson, shortstop Jean Segura and catcher J.T. Realmuto, all of them former all-stars.
For most of the offseason, the Phillies mounted concurrent pursuits of the two biggest prizes of this free agent market: Harper and 26-year-old shortstop/third baseman Manny Machado, both of whom were expected to get deals that would flirt with, if not exceed, Stanton’s benchmark of $325 million. But the San Diego Padres nabbed Machado last week with a 10-year, $300 million deal that Phillies General Manager Matt Klentak said “exceeded our valuation” of Machado.
As pressure grew in the Phillies’ home market, the team’s top brass, led by Middleton, intensified its efforts, with the owner flying to Las Vegas to meet face-to-face with Harper over the weekend.
Even as the Giants and Dodgers made their late pushes for Harper — with the former showing a willingness to go as long as 10 years and the latter seeking a shorter-term deal but potentially at a significantly higher annual value and both teams meeting with Harper in Las Vegas over the past week — the Phillies expressed quiet optimism that they would not be outbid.
And by landing Harper on a longer deal at a lower-than-expected annual salary, the Phillies remain well below the 2019 luxury tax threshold of $206 million and have additional payroll flexibility in future seasons — which undoubtedly will lead to speculation they could pair Harper in their outfield with center fielder Mike Trout, a New Jersey native who grew up rooting for the Phillies, when he hits free agency after the 2020 season.
The Nationals selected Harper first in the 2010 draft, picking the kid who had been dubbed on the cover of Sports Illustrated the “Chosen One” at the age of 16, then watching him become exactly that. Harper was surrounded by hype and expectations since his teenage years, and he made his debut in 2012.
Harper leaves as the Nationals’ single-season record holder in on-base-plus-slugging percentage, on-base percentage and walks. He is also the team’s career leader in on-base-plus-slugging percentage (.900) and slugging percentage (.512), and he is second to Ryan Zimmerman in hits, home runs and total bases.
Harper also departs as one of the more complicated figures in the history of D.C. sports, a player beloved by many but never unconditionally. His temper often proved costly in key moments. His hustle waned at times, particularly on defense in 2018. He was never the face-of-the-franchise type of clubhouse leader so many outside big league clubhouses thought he should be.
But Harper leaves behind a memory book of transcendent moments and game-saving swings.
He hit five Opening Day home runs in six Opening Day starts. He hit a home run so monstrous in Game 1 of the 2014 National League Division Series that San Francisco Giants reliever Hunter Strickland felt the need to retaliate three seasons later, sparking the most epic brawl in the team’s history.
And on July 16, 2018, at Nationals Park, in the middle of a trying season with the Nationals, Harper stormed back to win the Home Run Derby in front of his home crowd, a moment in which the old, spunky Harper returned and the city forgot all but that magical version of its prodigy. Harper was moved to tears by the response from the fans that night.
But his final night at Nationals Park was less fitting, if just as poetic. That night, after the team ran a tribute on its video board that now feels like foreshadowing, the team played just seven innings because of rain. Harper was 0 for 4 with two strikeouts when the game was called. He was also on deck at that moment. He never got to say goodbye, at least not with the kind of send-off you might expect of him.
It remains to be seen whether the Nationals can be as good without Harper as they were with him. They went to the postseason with him four times in seven seasons but never won a playoff series. But they are almost certain to be less of a spectacle, for better or worse.
Harper’s next moment at Nationals Park will be as a visitor. Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo has been fierce in his defense of Harper, and he said in November that while he’s comfortable with his team without the young superstar, he’s “not comfortable with the idea that we’re a better team without him.” As many thought they would for some time, the Nationals will have to find out exactly who they are without one of the most prominent and talented players of the era — all while watching exactly what they are missing as Harper begins his prime somewhere else.
Harper will be playing home games in a stadium, Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park, where he has hit more home runs than in any stadium besides Nationals Park, and where he has slugged .564 over the course of his career.
Though Harper will be 39 years old at the end of this contract, the Phillies almost certainly factored in the possibility — increasingly seen as a probability — the National League will adopt the designated hitter within the next few years, which could preserve some of Harper’s value in the later years of his deal.
Harper may have left Washington, but he didn’t go far, and the nature of the Phillies-Nationals rivalry — with its frequent meetings, budding history and potentially epic battle for future supremacy — means he will be a fixture of the D.C. sports scene, if in a different role and uniform, for years to come.
Barry Svrluga contributed to this report.