It finally happened. The “Bryce is Right” sweepstakes are over. Bryce Harper signed the largest deal in American sports history, topping Manny Machado’s $300 million free-agent deal and Giancarlo Stanton’s $325 million extension by agreeing to a 330 million dollar deal that’s good for the next 13 years. A deal of that size and that length is going to go down in history, especially given that there’ s no escape with a full no-trade clause and zero opt-outs for Harper. Its importance is going to go be significant, but it’s tough to say whether it will be a great success or a horrible failure.
The issue with attempting to evaluate a contract like this is that there are none. Harper and Machado both set records this offseason in terms of contract size, but that was only partly because of how much more money there is to give them. The biggest oddity in figuring out how these contracts will play out is not the size or length, but rather how young both players are. They are both entering their age 26 season this year. That is an astoundingly low age for giving up such a large paycheck. It’s difficult to predict how they will react to those sets of circumstances, because they have never actually existed before. Although past history will give some clues, there are no clear examples of a contract like the ones these two signed.
There is no question that Harper’s value comes from his bat. Since his career began, the only area he has been at all consistent in has been inside the batter’s box. HIs 27.4 WAR ranks 34th among position players entering their age 26 season since 1920, which is incredible but perhaps not legendary. His 27.4 oWAR, however, is 25th all time through age 25, and his career OPS(0.900) and OPS+(139) are 18th and 16th respectively. He has drawn the fourth most walks of any 25 year olds ever, and hit more home runs than all but 11 players by age 26 ever. An MVP, Rookie of the Year award, and six All-Star appearances also account for his hitting prowess. Simply put, few players in history have achieved as much as Harper has offensively at this point in their careers.
While the total number suggest greatness, one of Harper’s biggest question marks has been consistency. Over a third of his 27.4 total WAR came in his incredible 10.0 WAR MVP season in 2015. Although his WAR has been at an All-Star level in three of his seasons, he also has thee more where he’s been below two, which is the average for a Major League starting position player. At his best, Harper is one of the best players in the league. At his worst, though, he isn’t even good enough to crack the starting lineup. Injuries have certainly played a role in his inconsistency, but just means that the Phillies need to be concerned about his health remaining optimal. Harper figuring out how to play at his best full-time is going to be a deciding factor in whether he’ll wind up deserving this contract or not.
The most common knock on Harper’s play is his defense. His -3.2 dWAR last season was the eighth worst performance of any player in the history of baseball. He’s been a negative in the outfield most of his seasons in the league, and there’s no guarantee he’ll even be able to stay there for his entire career. There is some hope that he can be a decent fielder, as he had a 1.5 dWAR in his rookie year. He won’t have to be a positive fielder for this contract to work out, but he can’t be as detrimental to his team as he was last season either. While he probably won’t ever reach his rookie season level again, there is at least a solid chance that he can go back to be an around-average fielder again, which would do a lot to help him finally stay as one of the best players in the league.
One aspect of Harper’s game that is going to be questioned is his performance in the playoffs. His .211/.315/.487 slash line is not incredible, but it is hardly conceding either given that it’s only over four different playoff series and 19 total games. especially with the five home runs he hit, there’s nothing to suggest he can’ hit in October, just that he hasn’t necessarily done it yet. If he wants Philadelphia to believe he’s earned his massive deal, though, he’s going to have to show up when it counts. The Phillies have clearly put themselves in a position to reach the post-season, so Harper is almost certainly going to get chances to prove himself. How he plays when the lights are brightest will go a long way in deciding whether Philadelphia really should have given him everything they did.
Harper is going to be an interesting case-study over the next 13 years. Good or bad, this contract may wind up influencing a lot of future contracts given to the next wave of superstar free-agents Until its over, though, there is no way of knowing which way it is going to go. Harper has cemented that he’ll have an important place in baseball history, but now it’s up to him to show exactly how he’ll be remembered.