Bryce Harper and the $300 million question
In June 2009, a baseball star graced the cover of Sports Illustrated. It wasn’t Derek Jeter or Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols or Roy Halladay. In fact, it wasn’t even a major leaguer. Nope, it was a 16-year-old kid from Las Vegas named Bryce Harper, and the cover simply read:

CHOSEN ONE

SI compared him breathlessly to LeBron James and shared stories of his prodigious assaults on high school fences and parking lots. Harper was doing things other kids just weren’t. He showed tremendous bat speed and power to all fields, a rarity at his age. He was fast and strong and flashed impressive velocity as a starter, too. It was as if he wasn’t quite toolsy enough, so he added one more. 

He appeared on the scene like a baseball shooting star, overflowing with everything a good scout drools over and more than enough personality to keep cameras on and keyboards clattering. The hyper never stopped and this spotlight hasn’t left his stride in the years since. 

Harper earned his GED after his junior year, went and thrashed a small college league and was promptly drafted first overall by the Washington Nationals in 2010. He made his big league debut in 2012, not even old enough to drink. The prodigy had arrived.

But now the calendar reads 2018, and Harper is a veteran ready for free agency. The bidding is likely to challenge Giancarlo Stanton’s record 13-year, $325 million deal. The numbers are staggering.

Everyone knows the hype. But now teams must ask themselves, how good is Bryce Harper?

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In Harper’s young career, one season stands out like a bolt of lightning. He battered the National League in 2015, hitting an absurd .330/.460/.649 (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) and winning the league’s Most Valuable Player award. That season felt very much like Harper’s ascendancy into truly rarefied air, alongside his fellow phenom Mike Trout out in Los Angeles.

Make no mistake, few hitters have ever produced like Harper in 2015. And while he has certainly never had anything resembling a bad season, he also hasn’t approached 2015 again, either. If we use Fangraphs’ version of Wins Above Replacement (roughly: how many more wins did you produce for your team compared to what a random dude from AAA would?) we see this clearly:

2015: 9.3 (!!!)

2016: 3.0

2017: 4.8

2018: 3.5

None of those years are bad, and in 2017 he was knocking on the door of a 2015 repeat before he got hurt. Given that he remains as toolsy as ever, each season brings it with the potential for something historic. Talking about that in theory is one thing, but now the checkbooks are about to open, and the distinction between 2015 and the rest becomes critical. It would be for damn near anyone, mind you, but the expectation for Harper was that his 2015 would be, perhaps, the first among equals. That standard is absurd, like Barry Bonds or Willie Mays stuff, but still. This is the cost of a magazine cover in your junior year of high school.

Harper hasn’t been that guy. Is that bad? No. Almost no one is that guy. But the tantalizing thought with Harper is that he’s in the select group of guys who can pummel an entire league for a season. Perhaps as fans or analysts, we’re a bit spoiled that he isn’t doing it annually. But that bar is impossibly high, and it’s fair to acknowledge that.

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If the rumors are true and he already turned down a 10-year, $300 million offer from the Washington Nationals, it seems possible Harper will sign the most lucrative contact in baseball history. (Astute fans know, of course, that Harper is represented by Scott Boras, who has surely been angling for this payday since he saddled up next to young Bryce years ago. Boras is a master at landing big contracts. Harper won’t be going hungry.)

Harper will get his money. But which Harper are teams getting?

Are they paying for the MVP candidate but getting something (perhaps only slightly) less than that? Will the 2015 world-beating Bryce show up again? Or are you getting someone who produced a WAR in 2018 that rivals Aaron Hicks? (No offense to Hicks, a sneaky good player but no one’s idea of a superstar.)

Well … maybe it doesn’t matter.

Even if 2015 was the outlier, one should consider the floor here. Even if Harper never again reaches the heights of 2015, even if he’s always a 4-5 WAR guy, that’s still really good! Harper presents a unique challenge. He’s young, but we also have history with him. It’s natural to see the inconsistency and wonder just how good Harper is. But … if Harper conjures up just one of those supernova 2015 seasons … he’ll have made someone pretty happy. 

It’s entirely possible he could do it a few times. Part of signing him to such a contract is the gamble that his best years are ahead of him, a smart gamble at that.

It’s not a bad risk to take. All in all, Harper is one of the best free agents to hit the market in years, and someone should be willing to write the check.

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