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March 01, 2019

What they're saying: Bryce Harper got paid, and the Phillies still have money to spend

But not everyone thinks this deal is a slam dunk for the Phillies...

By now, you already know that the Phillies have agreed to terms with free agent outfielder Bryce Harper on a deal that will give him the richest guaranteed contract in sports history, worth $330 million over 13 years. 

It's a number so big, it's almost hard to wrap your head around, but it's also a number that makes sense to not only Harper and his agent, Scott Boras, but to the Phillies as well. And that's where we'll start today's Bryce Harper edition of What They're Saying... 

Well-positioned moving forward

Matt Gelb | The Athletic

Where do the Phillies currently stand in terms of payroll once you factor in Harper's contract? Well, they're actually in a great spot, especially if they're willing to cross the luxury tax threshold, something Andy MacPhail wouldn't entirely rule out earlier this offseason. 

The Phillies, by one rough estimate, have committed $187.98 million in 2019 payroll when calculated for luxury tax. (That would rank sixth in Major League Baseball.) So, the immediate benefit of keeping Harper’s annual salary lower is more flexibility for in-season additions. They are about $18 million under the luxury tax cap for 2019. A few weeks ago, team president Andy MacPhail was asked if the club would ever exceed the luxury-tax threshold. The Phillies have never done that.

“Nobody can read the landscape a year out,” MacPhail said. “You may have a need you didn’t anticipate or you may have solved a problem you thought might be a need. I think that’s an ownership call and they’ll address as they see it when the time comes. But I wouldn’t say absolutely, categorically no by any means.”

That makes nothing impossible. (A $330 million contract should be enough evidence of that.) The Phillies might be more reluctant to shop in the priciest aisles, but they are not restricted from entertaining lavish ideas thanks to the 13-year length of this deal.  []

And that's the key here. By spreading out this deal over 13 years, the Phillies managed to leave their options open when it comes to building around Harper, whether that's by adding a pitcher before the season starts (Dallas Keuchel is still available), buying some extra talent at the deadline in anticipation of a postseason run, or adding another big in a future offseason (oh, hey there, Mike Trout).

But the Phillies are also going to have to worry about taking care of their own in the not-so-distant future. And, once again, this deal leaves them in a position to do so. 

The Phillies, at some point, will entertain ideas on Hoskins and J.T. Realmuto contract extensions. They can fit those into the payroll. They will need the organization’s pitching development program to uncover some gems because pitching is expensive and if the Phillies have significant dollars invested in right field, left field, shortstop, catcher and first base, there will be pressure to infuse young arms into the mix.

But Harper and his agent, Scott Boras, also know this. Harper wants to win. That extra $8 million or $10 million in AAV to Harper could have diminished the team’s spending power to field a winner in any given season. Harper sacrificed nothing; $330 million is $330 million. But, through the 13-year commitment, he sends a message that he’s willing to compromise for a greater goal.  []

We. Are. Family.

Jeff Passan | ESPN

Apparently, the decision to sign with the Phillies wasn't all about money for Bryce Harper. Don't get me wrong, it was definitely about the money. But it was also about something else, according to agent Scott Boras.

And considering that he took a lower AAV spread out over more years is a clear indication that Harper wants to help this team win a title. After all, he's here for the next decade-plus with no way out. These two sides are married now. For better or worse. Sickness and health. All that.

In the meetings that led to him becoming the highest-paid athlete in the history of team sports, Bryce Harper kept coming back to one word: family... So when Philadelphia Phillies owner John Middleton took his private jet from Florida to Las Vegas a week ago, he wasn't alone. Accompanying Middleton was his wife, Leigh. They wanted to show Harper and his wife, Kayla, that family mattered to them as well -- that they would compound years and dollars with actions that spoke to what he sought...

At the same time, the notion of dedication, of loyalty, of all things familial came up often enough during his meetings with teams that they had to take it seriously. It was the Harpers' way of saying that this pledge was ironclad.

Which, for now, it is. Harper will be all smiles at his media conference. Phillies officials will beam. The first day is always happily ever after. They'll do everything shy of smearing cake frosting on each other's noses. Then comes the hard part. A marriage between star and team isn't easy, and it's especially difficult when that star happens to be guaranteed $330 million in a market that does not suffer failure gladly.

At some point, the bond will be tested and the vow questioned, because no relationship can be perfect. And when that happens, both sides will remember that the old chestnut -- you can't choose your family -- doesn't apply to baseball. Bryce Harper chose his. And he can only hope it was for the right reasons.  []

A buffet of offers

Todd Zolecki |

The Phillies likely knew they had the most total money to spend. But just to cover every angle, the Phillies reportedly had three separate offers for Harper at the same time, allowing him to pick whether he wanted a long, short or medium deal. The did not want to be outbid — whether that was in total money or AAV. 

The Dodgers and Giants entered the picture late. The Dodgers only seemed interested in a short-term deal -- never offering Harper 10 years, a source told’s Jon Paul Morosi -- but the Giants did make a 10-year offer. Two sources said the Phillies, protecting themselves from a short-term offer with a high average annual value, made three separate offers to Harper at one point: a short-term deal, a mid-term deal and the finalized long-term deal. Boras told the New York Post on Thursday that Harper had "average values of $45M offered on shorter-term deals.”  []

What makes this deal different?

Michael Baumann | The Ringer

Aside from the lack of opt-out clauses in the deal and the fact that he won't be among the 10 highest paid players in baseball this year (in terms of AAV), there's something very interesting about Harper's deal. It's slightly front-loaded, and none of it is deferred. Here's a deep-dive look at what that means for the Harper and the Phillies moving forward...

The most interesting thing about Harper’s contract is its structure. Harper’s deal is the richest ever in terms of overall value, but it won’t make him one of the 10 highest-paid players in the game in terms of average annual value, bringing him in at around $25.4 million per year on average. And the contract is reportedly front-loaded, meaning Harper will make more money earlier in the contract than later. This is in contrast to the Nationals’ reported 10-year, $300 million offer, which carried a higher average salary but included $100 million in deferred money, paying Harper until he was 62 years old. Harper would have earned interest on those payments, but the money loses value over time thanks to inflation. That bothers some athletes but not others; for instance, Max Scherzer, another Boras client, is on a seven-year deal, in which half of the $210 million he’s owed is deferred.

That means Harper will get paid more up front, but it also has two important implications for the Phillies. The first has to do with the competitive balance tax, which appraises each player based not on what he makes in a given season, but on what his average annual salary is over the life of the contract. The Phillies front-loaded Arrieta’s deal but have several players—McCutchen, Nola, Scott Kingery—whose salaries increase substantially in years to come. Compare Harper’s deal to the one Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado signed—eight years, $260 million: The Phillies are paying Harper $70 million more over five years at the back end of the contract, while reducing his competitive balance tax hit in 2019 by $7.1 million. That means Harper’s tax hit is about 22 percent less than Arenado’s. NHL teams used to deploy extra-long front-loaded contracts to circumvent the salary cap before the league outlawed the practice in its current CBA, so while the tax logic of this deal is novel for baseball, it’s not completely untried in sports.

That the NHL changed the rules governing contracts should serve as a reminder that Harper’s contract is so long it’s impossible to know how it will look when it ends... []

Know your enemy

Ken Rosenthal | The Athletic

The Nationals will get to face Bryce Harper 19 times this year. And given their willingness to let Harper go, to a division rival no less, without much of a fight might not be a great sign for the Phillies.

In an age of dizzying player movement, it’s almost heartwarming to see a deal like Harper’s, one with no opt-outs and a full no-trade clause. The commitment on both sides is laudable, assuming Harper truly wanted to be in Philadelphia. But he had told some rival players and friends Philly was not his first choice, reinforcing the notion that with his decision, he primarily was looking for the record-breaking guarantee... if long-term stability was Harper’s priority, he possibly could have chosen an easier route, building off his original proposal from the Nationals and remaining in Washington for his entire career...

One rival executive thought it telling that the Nats allowed Harper to join a division rival, essentially without a fight. But the Nats were fairly set in the outfield. They wanted to spend in other areas. Both sides might simply have felt it was time to move on.

Well, if the Nats viewed Harper as a player they did not mind losing, perhaps the Phillies should be concerned with the player they are getting. Harper’s defensive metrics in the outfield declined sharply last season, though in Boras’ view he was still working his way back from a hyperextended left knee that sidelined him from Aug. 13 to Sept. 26 in 2017. The bigger issue, though, is that Harper must now meet the expectations his contract will create in one of the game’s most demanding markets.  []

Worth the cost?

Neil Greenberg | The Washington Post

As you're beginning to see, not everyone thinks the Phillies pulled off some major coup by signing Harper. Over at The Washington Post, Neil Greenberg did a deep dive on Harper's value vs. what the Phillies will be paying him. 

Harper agreed to a new contract with the Philadelphia Phillies for $330 million over the next 13 years with no opt-out clauses, according to The Post’s Barry Svrluga. Earlier today I wrote why a $300 million contract over 10 years wasn’t a good investment for any major league club. Adding on three more years doesn’t change the calculus by much...

Even if my numbers are off — and they very well might be — Harper’s chances of outperforming a $330 million contract over 13 years seems unlikely. For example, including his spectacular 2015 campaign, which earned him a unanimous NL MVP award, he was worth $235.6 million to the Nationals from 2012 to 2018, which is $33.7 million per year. Take away the MVP campaign and that average annual value drops to $26.8 million per season. But that’s during the early parts of his career, it’s unlikely he will be able to continue above-average production into his 30s, more or less his late 30s.

Sure, the Phillies would love to think they were getting the player Harper was in 2015 each year over the next decade but that’s just not realistic based on his performances to date — that season is a clear outlier compared to his other major league seasons.

If this all sounds like a slight on Harper it isn’t, a four-win season is certainly worthy of praise, but to earn the richest contract in MLB history there simply should be a greater certainty of production, and that’s something Harper has yet to show at an elite level. There very well could be some great seasons posted along the way, but the Padres and Rockies should feel much better about the contracts handed to Machado and Arenado than the Phillies should feel about their new pact with Harper.  []

Past his prime?

Travis Sawchik | FiveThirtyEight

Speaking of the numbers, here's an even deeper look at what Phillies fans can expect from Harper, who Travis Sawchik points out has been wildly inconsistent over his career. Moreover, he makes the argument the Harper might have peaked already, despite being just 26 years old. 

He’s one of only 15 position players 25 and younger to own a 10-WAR season, according to The rare company includes Ted Williams, Mike Trout, Willie Mays, Lou Gehrig and Cal Ripken Jr. But he’s had just the one elite-level season.3 His other campaigns have had a range of outcomes, from 1.1 to 5.1 WAR. Even within seasons, he’s had dramatic peaks and valleys. Last year, for instance, he hit .214 with an .833 OPS in the first half but was a star in the second half when he hit .300 with a .972 OPS. ...

FiveThirtyEight examined all players in MLB history who have had one season of 8 or more WAR — but only one — before turning 26, and then we studied the trajectory of those players’ careers. There are 32 such players in MLB history, including three other than Harper who are still active: Aaron Judge, Matt Chapman (who hasn’t played his age 26 season) and Evan Longoria. Of the 28 players who are no longer active, 17 never produced another 8-plus WAR season after their age 25 season.

The historical players studied peaked at age 24 (6.6 WAR) and 25 (6.5 WAR), then they declined steadily. A player’s peak is often earlier than conventional wisdom would expect. Jeff Zimmerman at FanGraphs found that while the average ballplayer peaks at age 27, good players peak at either 25 or 26 years old.  []

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