On Thursday afternoon, Bryce Harper finally signed with a team; the right fielder and his glorious hair will be headed to Philadelphia. Harper’s deal is for 13-years and $330 million. It’s the largest free agent signing and largest contract in sports history, surpassing Manny Machado’s 10-year, $300 million contract with the Padres, which Machado signed just last week.
That Harper got the largest contract in history was a surprise to no one; Harper’s free agency had been speculated about for years and his agent, Scott Boras, is known for getting his clients the money they want. Plus Harper is just 26 years old and may just be entering his prime.
What was surprising was the rest of the contract—13 years, no opt-outs, no deferred money, and a full no-trade clause. The contract will keep Harper in Philly through his age 38 season in 2031.
There are many questions the Harper signing brought up.
Is he worth it?
Harper is still young—he just turned 26 in October. He already has a number of career accomplishments. He was named National League Rookie of the Year in 2012, he is the youngest position player to play in an All-Star Game, and he was unanimously named NL MVP in 2015 with a triple slash line of .330/.460/.649., a wRC+ of 197 (league average is 100), and an fWAR of 9.3. Given those accomplishments, it’s hard to imagine a team that wouldn’t want Harper batting third or fourth in its lineup.
However, Harper has been somewhat injury-prone. He missed time with an injured hip in 2013, had surgery on his left knee after the 2013 season, had surgery on a torn ligament in his left thumb in 2014, and has suffered injuries to his shoulder, neck, and re-injured his left knee. While this isn’t his fault, the fact is that injuries have found Harper.
Harper has also been unable to replicate the success of his MVP year. There aren’t many players who can, but unfortunately for Harper, he’s playing at the same time as Mike Trout. The 9.3 fWAR Harper sported in 2015, the best of his career? Trout has five seasons of having an fWAR of 9.3 or better. It may be unfair to compare Harper to Trout, but they will always be compared to one another.
Harper is still a force to be reckoned with at the plate, but his defense in 2018 was downright awful. Fangraphs’ UZR metric had him at -7.4—the average is zero, so Harper was way below average. Baseball Reference uses Defensive Runs Saved to measure defense, and Harper was -26—meaning he allowed 26 runs to score defensively, which was second worst among all outfielders. Regardless of the metric used, it’s clear that Harper has gotten worse defensively.
So is Harper worth it? Yes and no. $330 million still seems like a good deal for Philadelphia to have a 26-year-old former MVP with the raw talent and potential that Harper has. Citizens Bank Park also suits a hitter like Harper—it’s not unrealistic to think he could hit 30-40 homeruns in a smaller park like Citizens Bank. His numbers in 50 games in Citizens Bank Park: .258/.365/.564 with 14 home runs and is the all-time leader in slugging percentage—.564—in the park’s history.
Harper probably won’t be worth the money on the back end of his deal; it’s hard to imagine any player in their late 30s being worth $25.38 million a year. But it’s clear the Phillies are going for it, and if they win a World Series at any time over the next 13 years, it will certainly be worth any money they’ll spend when Harper is a light-hitting 35-year-old.
Are the Phillies automatically favorites to win the NL East with the addition of Harper?
With the addition of Harper alone, no. With the addition of Harper, Jean Segura, J.T. Realmuto, and Andrew McCutchen—probably.
Harper is still young and may not have peaked yet. Segura’s combined fWAR over the last three seasons is 11.9; Harper’s is a combined 11.3. Realmuto just might be the best catcher in the game. Cutch isn’t the same player as he was in 2013 or 2015, but he had a nice stretch run with the Yankees last season and is a decent addition for the Phillies.
The Phillies finished last season 80-82, good enough for third place in the NL East. They made a huge jump between 2017 and 2018, and with the addition of the aforementioned players in the offseason, they’ll be a formidable opponent in 2019. Winning the offseason doesn’t always translate to success on the field, but the Phillies have names and a manager that has embraced analytics, which seems like the best of both worlds. Until proven wrong, it’s hard to pick against the Phillies.
What does this mean Mike Trout, who will hit free agency after the 2020 season?
With Harper getting $330 million over 13 years, many assume Trout will sign a deal upwards of $500 million. As stated above, Trout has the better stats and is the better player. Trout’s WAR has him in legendary company. He’s better defensively.
It’s still likely that Trout will not receive a $500 million deal. He’ll be 29 when he hits free agency, so a 13-year deal probably won’t happen for him. Teams are less and less willing to dole out huge sums of money in free agency. It’s no secret that hitters decline after age 30. No one—not even Mike Trout, who at times seems superhuman—can stop time. Trout will probably sign a contract with the highest average annual value (AAV)–$35-$38 million/year over 10 years seems like a reasonable and realistic contract for Trout. But $500 million is a stretch. Remember, people thought Harper was likely to receive a $500 million deal, too.
The Harper era has officially begun in Philadelphia and it won’t be over for a very long time—many of the guys Harper will be playing with at the end of his contract are currently in middle school.