WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The 10-year, $400 million Bryce Harper contract that everybody has been speculating about for years — that’s dead.
Over the next year, we will find out just how deeply it’s buried under the rubble of MLB’s collapsing free agent salary structure. Is his new price more like $300 million for eight years or perhaps $250 million, if he’s lucky, for seven years?
My answer, after covering every MLB labor battle since 1976, the year of the first free agent, is that when the pendulum of baseball economics swings, it swings further than anybody anticipates.
Whatever the number of years and dollars you think Harper, Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson and Craig Kimbrel will be offered next winter, start slashing them. The shock waves of this salary tsunami have barely reached shore. When their full force is appreciated, fans will reevaluate their teams in a new light.
That will require much digestion and analysis, one team at a time. But in Washington, even the Nationals’ own players shake their heads in disbelief as they acknowledge that all five of their important players who are in their walk years — Harper, Daniel Murphy, Gio Gonzalez, Matt Wieters and Ryan Madson — will face radically different and probably lowered prospects.
While that may not be good for their teammates’ wallets, this new economic order should benefit the Nats as a whole. Just as $70 million will drop off the Nats’ payroll after 2018, the price of high-level talent is plummeting.
Suddenly, the Nats’ chances of keeping Harper improve. But so do their options for moving away from Harper and instead focusing on long-term deals with stars such as Anthony Rendon and Trea Turner while still having payroll room to invest in prime free agents next winter. If the Nats don’t capitalize on this seismic shift to keep their title window wide open through 2021, then they have blown it.
“I don’t think you’ll ever seen another [Giancarlo] Stanton contract — for anybody,” one Nat said of that 13-year, $325 million deal.
From analyzing the recent contracts of a range of free agents, I think that almost all teams now believe that if they acquire a top free agent such as Harper, they will have to give up compensation — in draft picks and lost international bonus pool money — that is worth at least $50 million and perhaps more like $75 million.
I will explain the math later. But Harper, Machado and the rest of the class of 2019 now probably have anchors tied to them. The only team that can sign them and not pay this huge compensation is their current team. The Nats and Orioles will start with a large advantage over rich competitors in keeping their own stars. How large? We will analyze that later.
In this radically new market, the Nats have two options. So far, they have treated Harper as they did Stephen Strasburg, basically waiting to hear whether he wanted to talk about a stay-in-D.C. extension. Now, in a cheaper market and with their rivals disadvantaged, they might decide to get aggressive.
Or since they already have so many outfielders under team control — Adam Eaton, Michael A. Taylor, Victor Robles, Juan Soto and Brian Goodwin — the Nats may look at “today’s prices” and focus on locking up Rendon, who is free after 2019, or the other young players they value highest.
Unless Harper becomes earnest in pursuing the Nats, as Strasburg did, I suspect that Washington will follow the second option. The tide has shifted. It’s neither good nor bad. It’s just change. All over MLB, teams have the leverage and the optionality. I expect to be shocked. A year from now, if there is no fervent pursuit by the Nats and with at least seven other glitzy free agents glutting a limited market of teams with both money and a will to win, Harper may indeed “reset the MLB market” but at a lower level than has been imagined.
Maybe not. Over the next year, we will see whether my reading on this is approximately correct. Ryan Zimmerman disagrees: “Harp is a lot different than anybody in this year’s free agent class. What applies to him then may not be at all like what we’re seeing now.”
Harper has taken the reasonable position, like Strasburg and Max Scherzer in the past, that he won’t talk at all about 2019 in 2018.
But everybody else is talking. Last week, Mike Moustakas, whom FanGraphs estimated would get a five-year, $85 million contract, came crawling back to his old team, Kansas City, for a pay cut — $6.5 million for one year.
“Moustakas hit 38 homers last year. He broke a Royals team home run record — in that [big] park — that had stood for like 25 years,” Murphy said, almost in disbelief.
This week, Jake Arrieta, represented by Scott Boras, whose clients include Moustakas and Harper, signed a similarly stunning contract with the Phillies. Several months ago, Boras compared Arrieta’s value to that of Scherzer (seven years, $210 million). Even if that was bargaining, $150 million or perhaps the $126 million for six years that the Cubs gave Yu Darvish looked sensible for Arrieta. For pitchers, especially past 30, total guaranteed dollars are almost all that matters.
Arrieta signed for $75 million over three years. Where is that extra $50-million-or-more safely in his hand? Does he ever get another big deal at 35?
What prevented 29 teams, including the Nats, from offering a former Cy Young winner a bigger deal? Why didn’t Moustakas get anything?
One partial explanation, a half-dozen are “tanking” to rebuild or to pocket cash rather than compete. “No, try 15 teams aren’t trying to win,” a Nats vet said.
But the main reason for the salary plunge is the huge value teams place on the compensation that they must give up if they sign a top free agent who has rejected a qualifying offer ($17.4 million last year).
“We were more and more amazed as the winter went on — right up to Moustakas,” said one of the Nats’ top decision-makers, who did not want to be quoted for fear of . . . you fill in the blank.
Is it possible that part of this implosion is collusion by owners, like their sins in 1985-87 when MLB settled with its players for $280 million in damages?
“I lived that,” said Nats assistant general manager Bob Boone, who was then one of the players determined, by an arbitrator, to be a victim of collusion. “It took 10 more years for me to get the check — with annual interest,” he added with a chuckle.
“This time, I see a natural market correction,” said Boone, who, as management now, might be expected to say that. But Boone, one of the staunchest union men as a player, has a long history of being bluntly honest.
“Young players are valued far higher now. Players past 30 are valued much less,” said Boone, a Stanford graduate.
Analytics prove players peak younger than previously thought. Testing for PEDs and amphetamines has stopped older players from cheating to stay young. So the valuation gap has widened at warp speed.
If the Nats had signed Arrieta, Lance Lynn or Alex Cobb as a free agent, they would have given up second- and fifth-round picks in the June draft, as well as $1 million in international bonus money. “Fans don’t understand all the value in those picks and bonus money,” Nats principal owner Mark Lerner said Tuesday.
But the Lerners understand. In a few years, the Nats’ starting lineup may include outfielders Robles, 20, and Soto, 19, as well as Wilmer Difo and catcher Pedro Severino. A key piece in the 2016 trade for Eaton was 100-mph prospect Reynaldo Lopez. Those five Dominican players were all signed by the Nats for less than $400,000 in international bonus money.
Could the ultimate value of all those internationals, plus draft picks that might pan out as well as a second-rounder like Jordan Zimmermann, provide the Nats with $50 million to $75 million in value — my guesstimate earlier — during their young, inexpensive 20s?
Probably. It just took MLB a long time to figure it out. And the union didn’t.
The events of the past few months and even weeks have implications that radiate in all directions. Suddenly, the window for Scherzer and Strasburg to remain a Nats tandem almost certainly extends through 2021. Why? Strasburg’s not going to opt out of his contract after 2019 or 2020. In this market? His current $175 million deal now looks like one of the last bonanzas.
“There goes a lucky guy. He deserves every cent. But there won’t be many more contracts like that, maybe none for pitchers,” one veteran Nat said as Strasburg walked past. “Everybody talks about ‘windows.’ Ours just got bigger.”
Consider Gonzalez, presumed to be going, going, gone after 2018 because some team would offer him a multiyear contract the Nats would be unwise to match. Not anymore. Gonzalez suddenly profiles like Lynn, who settled for one year and $12 million.
Suddenly, almost nothing is unthinkable. Teams that theorize outside the box — or realize that the old box has been blown up — can flourish the next few years. The game may go back into labor pain, but happy teams still will go to those World Series.
Several franchises will be positioned to prosper. But the Nats need to grasp that they should be one of them.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.