His much-anticipated choice didn’t come until the last day of February and a full two weeks into spring training, but after months of posturing, Bryce Harper’s free-agent guessing game is finally over. Tag, Philly. You’re it.
Whether Harper actually wanted to be a Phillie is up for debate, not that it matters much now. Locked into a 13-year contract, Harper’s future is undoubtedly with Philadelphia. The 26-year-old’s arrival in the City of Brotherly Love appeared imminent over the weekend, but after holding discreet pow-wows with the Dodgers (the closest team geographically to his native Las Vegas) and Giants (who he famously brawled with after taking some chin music from known agitator Hunter Strickland), it looked like Harper had encountered a classic case of cold feet. So the Phillies warmed him up with a big bag of cash—$330 million to be exact.
It may not be quite the loot Harper had envisioned for himself—he’ll net a lower average salary than both Manny Machado (who the Padres made $300 million richer last week) and Nolan Arenado (who, to the surprise of many, will not be donning pinstripes in 2020). But it’s still an eye-popping amount and currently stands as the largest contract in sports history, a distinction that holds great importance to relentless agent Scott Boras. If you recall, when Boras was representing Alex Rodriguez in talks with the Texas Rangers almost two decades ago, the sides struck a deal worth exactly $252 million—double the previous record held by then-Timberwolves forward Kevin Garnett. Harper will earn less than Machado—the other big-ticket item in this year’s free-agent crop—on a per-year basis, but his total earnings over the life of his landmark 13-year contract will eclipse the previous high-water mark set by Giancarlo Stanton when the Marlins gifted him a $325 million extension in 2014.
Harper’s goliath deal looks even more absurd when you consider the league’s current landscape. Fearing luxury tap repercussions, teams have largely put the clamps on extravagant spending in favor of club-friendly deals, most in the vicinity of 3-5 years. Just in the past few weeks we’ve seen talented up-and-comers like Aaron Hicks, Miles Mikolas, Aaron Nola and Luis Severino settle for below-market contracts, opting for the fast cash instead of betting on themselves in free agency. Compared to the one-upmanship we witnessed earlier this decade with players like Robinson Cano and Prince Fielder putting pen to paper on increasingly ludicrous contracts, that’s quite an ideological shift. Whether that’s the analytics talking (Billy Beane’s Moneyball technique has gained a ton of traction, and rightfully so) or mere coincidence, there’s no doubt the tide is shifting for free agents and players are beginning to act accordingly.
It seems that baseball front offices have learned from their past sins, from doling out $127 million to soft-throwing Barry Zito to Albert Pujols’ 10-year, $254 million albatross. Machado and Harper are both rare cases because unlike typical big-leaguers who reach free agency around age 30, both are in their mid-20s. That alleviates the risk somewhat—even the most optimistic among us probably had a sneaking suspicion that the back half of Pujols’ contract would be a disaster. But dishing out a 13-year pact, with no opt-outs, is still an unprecedented commitment and one the Phillies may very well live to regret. But if Harper brings a pennant to Philadelphia, all will be forgiven.
In Philadelphia, Harper now finds himself in the thick of a quietly loaded lineup stocked with heavy-hitters like former MVP Andrew McCutchen, ex-Mariner Jean Segura, home-run-swatting first baseman Rhys Hoskins and All-Star backstop J.T. Realmuto. There’s plenty of RBI potential hitting in the middle of that murderer’s row and Harper has always enjoyed Citizen’s Bank Park, the site of 14 of his 184 lifetime homers. You don’t need me to remind you of Harper’s impressive fantasy credentials, but if you do, he’s an on-base wizard with annual 40-homer, 20-steal potential. Now that our story’s protagonist has finally achieved gainful employment after a winding, often-exasperating free-agent detour, owners can once again feel comfortable selecting Harper in the late-first/early-second round of fantasy drafts.
As for his new team, the Phillies look ready to compete right now with an ample lineup full of missile-launching run-producers and a deceptively strong rotation headed by rising star Aaron Nola and former Cy Young recipient Jake Arrieta. The Braves are no slouches and should be in it for the long haul, but with Harper aboard, the NL East is now Philadelphia’s to lose. Even after all that spending, Philadelphia remains well under MLB’s $206 million luxury tax and could easily supplement its starting staff with another big arm (Dallas Keuchel’s name comes to mind) while fortifying the bullpen with a late-inning thumper like Craig Kimbrel, who remains jobless despite leading Boston to another world title in 2018. Philly diehards already have their calendars marked for 2021 when native son (he’s from Jersey, but close enough) Mike Trout hits the market. The Phillies won’t be alone in courting Trout but given his local ties and rabid Eagles and Sixers fandom, it wouldn’t be a stretch to see him donning Phillies red and white after his Angels contract expires. Adding Harper to the equation can only help their chances of reeling in Trout, the biggest fish in MLB’s deep reservoir of talent.
The Phillies are obviously coming out ahead here, but any time a generational talent like Harper comes off the board, there are sure to be losers as well. Harper’s defection to Philadelphia is an obvious blow to the Nats, who just lost a foundation piece to a hated division rival. The six-time All-Star would also have been a much-needed pick-me-up for the Giants, the only known team besides the Phillies to extend a 10-year offer. It’s an equally brutal beat for the Dodgers. When Los Angeles dealt Matt Kemp, Yasiel Puig and Alex Wood to the Reds this winter in what equated to a straight salary dump, all signs pointed to Harper, or if that failed, Manny Machado. But the Dodgers missed on both, instead settling for oft-injured center-fielder A.J. Pollock and bespectacled reliever Joe Kelly. Clayton Kershaw’s latest shoulder ailment isn’t doing much to inspire confidence around Chavez Ravine as the Dodgers, losers of consecutive World Series, find themselves limping into 2019.
The Harper Sweepstakes was baseball at its most gripping, a weaving melodrama flush with plot twists, engaging characters and even a Smashmouth cameo or two. But now that the die is cast, it’s time to break out the gloves and play ball again. Buckle up for 2019. It’s here.