Predicting the value of Bryce Harper’s next contract

Bryce Harper will play out the remainder of the 2015 season and the 2016 season under a two-year, $7.5 million contract. I would say that is a pretty good bargain for the Washington Nationals. Harper likely earned his entire $2 million salary for the 2015 season with his monster month of May. Yep, 13 home runs, 28 RBIs, and a .360/.495/.884 line is worth somewhere around $2 million. The Nationals control the 22-year-old Harper through the 2018 season. At that point, he will finally become a free agent after seven full Major League seasons. Oh, and he will be only 26 years of age.

By the time Harper hits free agency, there is a very good chance he will have surpassed the 200-home run plateau. When Alex Rodriguez became the highest-paid player in baseball history in 2001, at the age of 25, he had only 189 career home runs. Following a 52 home run season in his first year in Texas, Rodriguez sits atop the all-time 25-and-under leaderboard with 241 home runs. It will take Harper an average of 46 home runs over the next three-and-a-half years to exceed Rodriguez’s total when he hit free agency. It’s not out of the question that he could equal Rodriguez given the way he has hit the ball this season. Had he not spent the first three years of his career dealing with minor injuries, the record would be squarely in his sights.

If the Nationals are not already thinking about how much it will cost to sign Harper long-term, they darn well better be. What got me thinking about Harper’s next contract, in the first place, is the fact that the Nationals will have to find ways to keep Stephen Strasburg, Anthony Rendon, and Jordan Zimmermann all in the very near future. Oh, and don’t forget the fact that Max Scherzer‘s contract is ridiculously back-loaded. Scherzer will be making upwards of $37 million per season by the time Harper is eligible for free agency. I know it is way too early to really be thinking about something that cannot occur until 2018, but hey, that’s part of what being a writer is all about.

The player Harper is most often compared to in the game today, Mike Trout, made waves this offseason by agreeing to a six-year, $144.5 million contract extension. By the end of the contract, Trout will be earning over $34 million per season. This is a great deal for the Los Angeles Angels. The contract is also back-loaded, and comes out to an annual salary of just over $24 million. That’s less than the Philadelphia Phillies paid to extend Ryan Howard. Not a bad deal, in my opinion.

Any discussion involving an extension for Harper will have to equal or exceed the extension Trout signed with the Angels. Harper, however, is represented by Scott Boras, who is notorious for advising his clients to avoid signing extensions before testing free agency. Harper is not even eligible for arbitration until after the 2016 season, and will make only $5 million next year. When and if he does enter arbitration, the record $10 million Ryan Howard received in his first year of arbitration eligibility will be shattered. Harper will likely fall somewhere between the $10 million Howard received and the $15.5 million that Prince Fielder was awarded in 2011.

If you look at the way Trout’s contract is structured, he is receiving a $5.25 million base salary this year, $15.25 million next year, and $19.25 million in 2017. What the Angels have essentially done is pay Trout exactly what he could have expected to receive in arbitration had he waited for his first chance to test free agency. After those years pass, Trout will be making a base of $33.25 million, which makes him the highest-paid position player in the game, by far. In Giancarlo Stanton‘s massive 13-year, $325 million deal with the Miami Marlins, the most he will receive in a single year is $32 million. Miguel Cabrera‘s extension with the Detroit Tigers kicks in next year, but he will also top out at $32 million.

Based on Trout’s contract, it is not unreasonable to expect that Harper would want a base salary upwards of $35 million, and possibly more by the time he reaches free agency. Going back to 2011, the highest-paid player (outside of Rodriguez who made $33 million thanks to a back-loaded contract) was Mark Teixeira, also represented by Boras at the time, who made $23.1 million. Fast forward five years, and baseball is ready to hand out contracts with an annual base salary of over $30 million. That’s a nearly 25% increase. Thanks to local TV deals, teams are flush with more cash than ever before.

Between now and 2019, when Harper will be able to test free agency, there are no other potentially franchise-changing position players set to hit free agency. Justin Upton comes to mind, but he is not on Harper’s level. The Angels and Marlins took care of that by extending Trout and Stanton early on. Should Harper wait until 2019 to sign his next deal, I do not think it is out of the question for him to become baseball’s first $40 million man. That’s a nearly five-year period, similar to the amount of time that passed between 2011 and 2015 in which the highest salaries rose by nearly a quarter. A jump to $40 million would continue that trend, without even accounting for inflation (for what it’s worth, based purely on inflation, Alex Rodriguez’s 2001 contract is worth $336 million in 2015 dollars. That’s not exactly how it works, but you get the point.).

This opportunity, to become baseball’s first $40 million dollar-a-year player, is why I do not expect Bryce Harper to sign an extension with the Nationals before 2019. If he does sign an extension before free agency, there is little chance that he receives an annual compensation of $40 million. He would likely be forced to accept a Trout-like extension in which the early years of his extension closely match what he would have earned in arbitration. That’s not even accounting for the fact that the Nationals also have to pay Max Scherzer nearly $40 million between 2019 and 2021. That fact would likely also force Harper to defer some of his money as well.

So, how exactly do I see this playing out? Buster Olney recently started the Harper-to-the-Yankees talk (Insider access required, sorry). If the Yankees are in on Harper, and of course they will be, then a 10-year, $400 million contract is not out of the question. I actually think that would be the starting point in any discussions between Boras and the Yankees. Obviously, the starting point in contract negotiations very rarely ends up being the final, agreed upon value. If Trout is making $34 million per season at that time, Harper will want more than that. Accounting for an increase in player salaries between now and 2019, a total package of $375 million for 10 years seems reasonable. Or at least as reasonable as it can when discussing matters related to $375 million.

There will only be a handful of teams capable of paying that type of money — the Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers, Angels, Red Sox, and Nationals come to mind. If the Yankees and Dodgers are both involved in the bidding war, then $375 million sounds very attainable, especially if Boras can play the teams off against each other. Really though, this discussion all depends on Harper staying healthy and continuing to produce as he has this year.

If the Tigers are willing to pay $248 million over eight seasons to a 33-year-old Miguel Cabrera, just imagine what a 26-year-old, best-player-in-baseball Bryce Harper will receive. This is exactly why Harper will be willing to wait through his arbitration eligible years. If he puts up numbers, he will receive somewhere between $15-20 million a year until the big free agency date comes around. When $40 million per year is a realistic target, that is a perfectly acceptable thing to do.

My final prediction — 10 years, $380 million, and a chance for Bryce Harper to ply his craft in the city where his boyhood idol, Mickey Mantle hit 536 home runs. For all his bluster and bravado, Harper is a very well-schooled student of the game. His legacy is important to him. What better way to cement one’s status as one of the best players in the history of baseball than by being the highest-paid player on the most historic franchise?

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