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Every headline about the Bryce Harper signing is going to scream “$330 Million!” and every sub-hed is gonna note that it’s the largest guarantee ever given a professional athlete. It is both of those things, factually speaking. It is also a team-friendly deal. The Phillies, I think, are getting a bargain.
Make no mistake: I am not crying a single tear for Harper here. He is making out handsomely. But purely from the Phillies’ perspective, this is not a particularly risky deal and, in all likelihood, they’re going to come out ahead on it.
There is no deferred money here. It may be front-loaded or backloaded to some degree — we don’t know yet — but we know that it’s $330 million, spread out over 13 years, which means that, on average, the Phillies are spending $25.38 million a year for Harper’s services.
At present, most player valuation systems put the value of one win, in the context of Wins Above Replacement, at around $7-8 million per win. Yes, I’m sure there’s some give in that — and yes, you may think the very concept which underlies such thinking is hogwash — but know that that’s what analysts do and, with some proprietary variations, it’s what teams do too.
Harper has been an erratic player over the years, but at his best — in his MVP 2015 season — Fangraphs had him at 9.3 WAR and Baseball-Reference.com had him at 10 WAR (the two sites use different formulations to calculate WAR). Last year, which was considered something of a down year for Harper, particularly defensively, he was at 3.5 and 1.3 WAR, respectively. Overall, for his seven-year career, he has averaged 4.3 WAR per Fangraphs and 3.9 per Baseball-Reference.com. How you want to weigh or judge the comparative values each website gives him and whether or not their defensive numbers on him are worth a damn is up to you, but there is good reason to believe that Harper’s 2018 numbers, particularly on defense, were misleadingly low.
If you go with an $8 million/WAR valuation, Harper has been worth more than $25.38 million according to Fangraphs in five of his seven seasons as a big leaguer, was really close to worth that in his 2016 season and was only substantially below that in his injury-marred, 100-game 2014 season. According to Baseball-Reference.com he’s been worth at least that in four of his seven seasons. Because Harper is being paid over a term of years and not on a year-by-year basis, of course, the average is more important. On average, Fangraphs’ WAR has him being worth $34.4 million per season for his career, Baseball-Reference.com has him at $31.2 million.
That was the past. How about the future? Again, if we use that $8 million/win figure, Harper will have to we worth 41.25 WAR over the next 13 seasons to earn his financial keep (that’s if we set aside soft factors like marketing, which means he’d would not have to be worth even that much). That’s an average WAR of 3.17. Can he do it? I’d take the over. I think most people would. In reality, of course, Harper can probably be expected to have several seasons in the first few years of his deal that are substantially above 3.17 and many on the tail end which are substantially below. I do like his chances at 41.25 overall, though.
There are a couple of other factors at play here too. One factor is that the weakest part of Harper’s game — his defense, if you believe the defensive metrics — may not be as much of a concern after 2021, as many people suspect that Major League Baseball and the MLBPA will agree to make the Designated Hitter universal, which means the Phillies could feature an all-bat Harper once he’s into his 30s. There’s also the simple fact that any underperformance by Harper at the tail end of this deal is not likely to hurt the Phillies as much as you might think. There are several players making over $25 million now. Assuming there has not been a radical change in the financial structure of baseball, come 2030 or 2031, $25 million or so is not going to be the kind of financial commitment that will hamstring a team by any stretch of the imagination. Indeed, most teams could probably eat a $25 million contract if they had too right now.
Again: I’m not saying Harper is underpaid or being taken advantage of here. My GOD, I’m not saying that. And I am certainly not suggesting that $330 million is not a lot of money because, boy howdy, it is. I’m simply saying that, all things considered, however good a deal this is for Harper, this is a good deal for the Phillies too, and they stand excellent odds of getting more out Harper, in value, than they’re going to be paying him.
That makes it a bargain in my book. A team-friendly deal. Don’t let the headlines you’ll see in the next day or two make you think any differently.