Things change quickly in baseball and it's important to note there's still a lot of time left to pass before this potential scenario plays out, but as Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post noted on Saturday, the Washington Nationals and star outfielder Bryce Harper could be headed to a grievance hearing next winter over an unresolved contract issue.
Harper, the No. 1 overall selection in the 2010 draft, reached an oral agreement on his current deal less than a minute before the Aug. 16 midnight deadline to sign picks. The five-year major league contract, rare for a draftee, called for Harper to be paid $9.9 million, including a signing bonus of $6.25 million. However, the Nationals insisted that the contract not contain a clause that would allow Harper to opt out of the contract terms and into baseball’s lucrative salary arbitration system once he was eligible; Harper’s agent, Scott Boras, was equally adamant that the virtually standard opt-out clause be included.
Days later, the Nationals presented a final written contract that did not contain an opt-out clause. Anticipating the possibility that Harper, at the time 17, could reach the majors sooner than expected, Boras and the Harper family refused to sign it.
At that time, Major League Baseball and the Players Association took the unusual step of interceding with a compromise: a letter of agreement stating that, if Harper qualified for salary arbitration before he reached the end of the contract, a grievance hearing would determine whether he could opt of his contract.
As noted by Kilgore, what truly makes the deal unusual is that Harper signed a major league contract right out of the gate. Since Boras and company were correct about Harper reaching the big leagues quickly, Harper's arbitration clock started early making it a virtual lock he'll qualify for Super Two status this season. What that means is Harper will be among a group of players who have between two and three years service time, with at least 86 days service time coming during the previous season. The 17% of those players with the most service time become Super Twos.
Barring an unforeseen drop in production that requires a minor league stint, Harper will be among that 17% and therefore arbitration eligible next winter, which would then require a hearing to determine whether or not he can opt out of the five-year pact to earn a larger one-year arbitration salary. Under his current deal, Harper is scheduled to earn a $900,000 base salary in 2014 and another $1 million in 2015, so the raise would indeed be significant.
Obviously this is a very unique contract and situation, but there are easy, less dramatic fixes available, such as reworking the deal in the short-term or even negotiating a long-term contract. That could allow Washington to spread his large salary out over a longer period of time, and would probably be the best way to go for the organization. One way or the other, they'll have to pay him, but going year-to-year in arbitration could raise his price tag quicker.
The other, uglier option is to drag things out, fight against Scott Boras, and likely damage the long-term relationship with both player and agent. That doesn't make much sense any way you look at it, so odds are this hearing will never come to pass, and Harper will get paid handsomely in the next 12 months.
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