Bryce Harper, formerly of the Washington Nationals, is still a free agent. There was some speculation that Harper, a six-time All-Star, would likely get a contract worth upwards of $400 million over 10 years when he reaches an agreement with his new team (or his old one). That just simply is not going to happen.
The 13-year, $325 million contract signed by the Yankees’ Giancarlo Stanton in 2018 is likely the last of the giant super-contracts in major league baseball. Remember, all contracts, according to the MLB and Players’ Union collective bargaining agreement, are guaranteed. That means that Stanton, who is 29 years old, could potentially earn $25 million in 2028 when he is 38 years old.
There are not too many 38-year-olds hitting 30 or 40 home runs and driving in 100 runs per season. There are buy-out options in Stanton’s contract, but regardless the Yankees are on the hook for millions no matter what Stanton does. What New York is hoping is that Stanton continues to whack home runs and doesn’t end up like Prince Fielder.
Like Harper, Fielder was a six-time All-Star who had plenty of years left in the tank when a couple of neck surgeries forced him into early retirement after the 2016 season. He only played 89 games that season and will never play again. He will, however, continue to get paid. Fielder had $106 million remaining on his contract when he retired. The Rangers are supposed to pay him $24 million a year … for not playing. Insurance will cover some of that and surely the Rangers and Fielder will set up some form of deferred payment plan, but does any MLB team want to pay for Harper’s retirement? Surely not.
That is why the days of these seven-, eight-, and ten-year contracts are over. Teams may sign superstars like Harper but will do so to shorter deals. Teams understand they have a window of opportunity to win a World Series. The Yankees, for example, won 100 games last season. They have a solid pitching rotation, outstanding relievers, and two of the best sluggers in the game in Stanton and Aaron Judge. Both are still in their late 20s and with their current roster and salary cap, the Yankees know that they have a few years where they can legitimately compete for a World Series title.
Knowing that, a team may be willing to pay a player like Harper $25, $35, or even $40 million a season for two or three years. What they are not going to do is pay him superstar money for a decade. The other reason teams will not be willing to sign a player like Harper is simply the economic principle of opportunity cost. In acquiring a free agent, MLB teams must give up compensation in the form of draft picks and international bonus pool money. Does a team like Atlanta, which has one of the best minor league systems in baseball, want to give up future prospects in exchange for Harper now?
The Dodgers, winners of the last six NL West crowns, need to rebuild their farm system. They can’t do it without draft picks. The team’s window of opportunity has been open for the past few years and may be open a few more. Do they risk selling out the future for two or three with Harper in the lineup? It’s a difficult decision but one that will lead many teams to forgo the huge super-contract in favor of something more short term. While Harper may be deserving of $400 million over 10 years, he is unlikely to get it.
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