What Nolan Arenado’s massive contract extension could mean for Bryce Harper

Another baseball star got nine-figures rich Tuesday, but it still wasn’t Bryce Harper.

Nolan Arenado agreed to a $260 million extension with the Colorado Rockies that will make him the highest paid position player in the game at $32.5 million annually. It’s coming a year before free agency, squashing any hope teams like the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers and Philadelphia Phillies had at wooing Arenado.

It’s a great payday for Arenado and a franchise-altering decision for the Rockies, who now can hope that one of the game’s best players calls Coors Field home for his entire career.

Yet, here we are, still asking the same question we’ve been asking since November: What about Bryce Harper?

Baseball, like any other market, is fluid. One transaction — especially when it’s a nine-figure transaction — can leave plenty of aftershocks. Arenado’s deal doesn’t directly affect Harper’s free agency in that the Rockies weren’t chasing Harper, but the years and the money were certainly noticed by the people deciding what Harper’s ultimate worth will be.

Bryce Harper vs. Nolan Arenado

Before we go any further, let’s say this: Both Harper and Arenado are among the best players in the game, there’s no doubt about that. They’re both young and productive, and their best days are probably still ahead of them.

The difference isn’t Mile High big, but so far Arenado has been the more productive player. Harper’s highs have been higher, but Arenado’s consistency makes him perhaps the best player in the game not named Mike Trout or Mookie Betts.

Harper’s MVP season in 2015 was his peak, with a 9.3 fWAR, and while Arenado has never delivered more than 5.7 fWAR, he’s pretty consistent around 5.0 fWAR when he plays a full season. Harper has been up and down because of injuries, and his 9.3 fWAR season was bookended by a 1.6 and a 3.0 season.

Additionally, Arenado, 27, is consistently hitting in the neighborhood of 40 homers with 100+ RBI (it was 110 last year, but 130, 133 and 130 the years before that). Sure, playing in Coors Field helps those numbers some, but there’s no denying that Arenado is a force. Plus, his defense is top notch. He’s won the Gold Glove at third base every year since 2013.

Harper, on the other hand, is still a year younger at 26. He can’t match Arenado defensively, but there’s a good case to be made that we haven’t seen his ceiling on offense yet either. He’s explosive at the plate, and his on-base percentage is one area that Arenado can’t match — .388 for Harper’s career vs. .346 for Arenado.

Nolan Arenado's massive contract extension with the Rockies could affect Bryce Harper, left. (Photo by Rob Leiter/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
Nolan Arenado's massive contract extension with the Rockies could affect Bryce Harper, left. (Photo by Rob Leiter/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

What does Arenado’s contract mean for Harper?

We’ll never know what this version of Arenado would fetch on the free-agent market, the Rockies made sure that didn’t happen with their extension.

The bigger question now is how Arenado’s contract affects Harper negotiations. If you’re on Team Harper, there are certainly some positives to pull from Arenado’s deal.

• It creates a new high in the market at $32.5M annually, which speaks to the idea that the market can support contracts with $30+M AAV. That’s what Harper is seeking.

• If the Rockies are willing to spend money, then other owners can’t cry poor. The Rockies aren’t one of the baseball’s big spenders traditionally. They’re more middle of the pack. Add the fact that the San Diego Padres just committed $300 million to Manny Machado, and there’s no reason to believe MLB teams don’t have the money to spend.

• This could create more incentive for a team like the Phillies to pull the trigger on a big Harper deal, or motivate the Dodgers to get it in on a longer term deal now that they know Arenado won’t hit the open market.

But there’s a flip side too. Arenado’s deal could hurt Harper’s pursuit in one big way. Arenado has been more consistent over the years and is the type of player any team would want. If he’s getting paid $32.5 million per year, it’s hard to see a team being able to justify giving more to Harper. At the very least, it gives teams an excuse to use $32.5 million as a ceiling.

There’s one ramification anybody eager for the Harper drama to end should think about. We’ve heard that Harper’s agent, Scott Boras, wants to set a record with this contract.

We all figured that meant breaking the $325 million extension that Giancarlo Stanton signed with the Miami Marlins, but if Boras also wants to set a record for annual salary, he’ll have a little more work to do after Arenado’s contract.

Could this mean we’ll be waiting even longer for Harper to sign? Nothing would be surprising at this point.

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