A major league general manager once said something to me that I haven’t been able to shake: “There’s never been a bad one-year contract. I wish they were all one-year contracts.” Which brings us to Brian Dozier, which will eventually get us to where all roads lead these days: Bryce Harper.
Dozier’s one-year, $9 million contract is an exceptional deal for the Washington Nationals. It’s outstanding if he produces the .246 average, .324 on-base percentage and .444 slugging percentage he has averaged for his career. It’s just fine if he repeats his lousy 2018, when those numbers dipped to .215/.305/.391. It can help in the short term. It can’t hurt in the long term. They have options if he struggles. They could be a juggernaut if he excels. What’s not to like?
So let’s get ahead of your next question before you ask it: Does this impact whether the Nationals are in position to re-sign Harper? The easy answer: No, it does not.
Harper’s market isn’t completely understood. We know the Nationals made a 10-year, $300 million offer late last season, when they were the only team that could negotiate with him. Jim Bowden, the former Nats general manager who now works for the Athletic, has reported that Washington has offered more since then. The Philadelphia Phillies are supposed to meet with him. The Chicago White Sox have money. What to make of the Los Angeles Dodgers? It’s getting to the middle of January, and it’s still murky.
But any team considering Harper needs to be clear on something: Don’t get caught up in how long he wants to play for you. Ten years? For most players, no way. For Harper? Yes, please.
The appealing nature of a one-year contract is that it hinders nothing about the franchise going forward. Yes, it would be impossible to have a roster that consisted of 25 one-year contracts. But the Nats’ deal with Dozier and, say, the one-year, $23 million deal the Atlanta Braves gave to third baseman Josh Donaldson — a former MVP who’s coming off injuries and would like to rebuild his market — are attractive for the clubs issuing them.
The Braves can benefit from Donaldson’s contributions as they try to repeat as National League East champs, but they’re neither blocking anyone in their own farm system nor chewing up money for future payrolls. The Nats believe in infield prospect Carter Kieboom, who’s just 21. If he’s ready in 2020, no problem.
But 10 years? Ten years is a commitment and a rare one at that. In the history of the sport, there have been just seven 10-year contracts — nine if you include deals to former Colorado Rockies Todd Helton and Troy Tulowitzki, contracts that were actually extensions to existing deals.
It’s easy to concentrate on the decade-long deals — or even some shorter examples — that have been busts. Albert Pujols’s career on-base-plus-slugging percentage with St. Louis was a robust 1.037. In the seven seasons since he signed a 10-year, $240 million deal with the Los Angeles Angels, it is a mediocre .768, including just .684 the past two seasons. The Angels owe him for three more years. Yuck.
Alex Rodriguez never saw the end of his 10-year contract with the New York Yankees. Prince Fielder retired five years into a nine-year contract signed with Detroit and later was traded to Texas. What will become of Miguel Cabrera, who has played just three of the eight seasons he committed to with Detroit — at a total sum of $247 million — and managed just 38 games because of injuries in 2018?
Ten-year contracts, then, could cause owners and front offices to get queasy. The club is tying up an inordinate amount of payroll in a player whose performance five years from now, eight years from now, a decade from now is nearly impossible to project. That’s scary. I get it.
The thing is: None of that really applies to Harper.
As a player, Harper’s main tools are his power and selectivity. Harper’s chief tool in contract negotiations: his age.
On Opening Day in 2019, Harper will be 26 — as will fellow marquee free agent Manny Machado, for whom much of this argument applies as well. The only players younger than Harper to sign a 10-year deal: Rodriguez, the first of his decade-long contracts, signed with Texas when he was just 25, and Giancarlo Stanton, who was 24 and not yet a free agent when he signed his historic 13-year, $325 million deal with the Miami Marlins.
Rodriguez’s first contract applies more directly to Harper’s situation because he was a free agent. That $252 million deal, it’s worth pointing out, doesn’t come close to the disasters described above. Yes, Rodriguez was traded by the Rangers to the Yankees after just three seasons. But before he opted out seven years in, he was a superb player averaging 47 homers and 130 RBI. Nearly two decades after he signed it, Rodriguez’s first free agent contract remains the third richest in the sport’s history — and he outperformed it.
When Rodriguez opted out, he was just 32. The contract, when he originally signed it, was designed to take him through age 35. The reason the 10-year, $275 million deal A-Rod subsequently signed with the Yankees was such a bomb: He was 33 by the end of the first season. So the results were predictable: He never again hit 40 homers in a year, and his OPS fell to .845 (from .967).
(Yes, for the purposes of this discussion, we’re putting aside Rodriguez’s issues with — and suspensions for — performance-enhancing drug use. It’s easy to do it because, even on the juice, he simply deteriorated as a player.)
There is, then, a clear dividing line in the 10-year contracts that worked and those that didn’t. Here are the ages of players on Opening Day in the first year of such deals: Stanton, 24; Rodriguez, 25 the first time, 32 the second; Robinson Cano, 31; Pujols, 31; Joey Votto, 30; Derek Jeter, 26; Tulowitzki, 26; Helton, 27.
The unarguable successes there: Rodriguez’s contract with Texas; Jeter’s 10-year, $189 million deal that began in 2001, a year before he was supposed to hit free agency; and the 11 years the Rockies paid Helton $151.5 million to produce a .958 OPS. (At Coors Field, sure, but still.)
I would argue we don’t know enough yet about the contracts to Stanton (nine years remaining if he doesn’t opt out) and Votto (five years left). But we know that Rodriguez fell off precipitously under his second 10-year deal, and both Pujols and Cano are trending that way.
The dividing line becomes obvious: age. The one exception is Tulowitzki, whose health broke down before Toronto released him with two years and $38 million remaining on the contract.
Injuries, of course, are a risk any club absorbs when issuing a long contract. Harper’s detractors would point out that he has missed at least 40 games in three of his seven big league years. I would argue that he now makes better decisions with his body during games and that his 2017 injury — slipping on a wet first base — was freakish in nature.
The point is this: Saying 10-year contracts are dangerous oversimplifies the matter. Bryce Harper will be 26 for the entirety of the 2019 season. The only club he has ever known just made a shrewd one-year deal with a veteran player who could help it get back to the postseason. Will it be able to complete a 10-year deal to keep its franchise face in Washington? It can, and it should.
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.