There are plenty of reasons why the Phillies should not give Bryce Harper a contract worth more than $300 million, and Evan did a pretty good job of laying them out. He almost convinced me that the Phillies would be making a huge mistake in signing Harper to a mega-deal. Almost.
I agree that Harper is not a “generational” talent in terms of his on-field production. You could make a strong case that Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, Nolan Arenado, Jose Altuve, and a few other players are as good, if not better than him. However, Harper is “generational” in terms of being good, young, and perhaps most importantly, available on the free agent market. None of those other players I mentioned are currently available, and none of them likely will be until after their prime years have passed.
Arenado is due to be a free agent in a year...unless he agrees on a contract extension with the Rockies. If he does come free, you’re then betting on a 29 year old whose numbers have assuredly been inflated by playing in Colorado.
As for the great white whale that is Mike Trout, there are already whispers of the Angels trying to sign him to an extension. Even if he does reach free agency, and is amenable to playing in Philadelphia, he’s almost assuredly going to get a deal that surpasses whatever Harper gets. Unfortunately, he’ll be 29 at the time, so whichever team pays him will be betting that his thirties go as well as his twenties did.
I realize that being the best player available is poor justification for signing a guy to a huge contract. For instance, Yu Darvish was considered the best pitcher on the free agent market last year, and thus far, his deal isn’t working out well for the Cubs. So we need to ask: Just how good is Harper, and more importantly, how good will he be in the future?
We’ve seen what Harper’s ceiling is, and it’s “best player in the National League.” In 2015, he slashed .330/.460/.649 with a National League leading 42 home runs. That season, he put up 10.0 WAR and deservedly won the NL’s MVP award. He hasn’t matched those numbers in the three years since, although he was on pace to come close in 2017 before he missed most of the final month and a half of the season with an injury.
His other seasons have been a mixed bag, but keep in mind, he entered the league at age 19, and was far from a finished product for most of those years. Theoretically, he is just entering his prime, which means it’s very likely that he remains one of the National League’s top offensive players over the next several seasons.
His WAR numbers aren’t especially impressive, but they’ve been deflated by some extremely poor defensive ratings. While just about every metric and observer say that Harper was bad in the field last season, he’s shown the capability to be a competent outfielder in previous years. Besides, if I have to err in favor of offense or defense in the outfield, I’m going to go with the guy who can hit 40 home runs rather than finding another Peter Bourjos.
Looking at Harper’s Baseball Reference’s Similarity Scores through age 25, three of the top ten players are in the Hall of Fame, and two others (Trout, Miguel Cabrera) seem like locks to join them one day. Even the players who did suffer drops in production (Andruw Jones, Ruben Sierra) were still very good players through their twenties.
The possibility of a drop off in production in the later years is indeed a concern. But if you’re worried about paying a player in his thirties, then you need to stay away from free agency and be able to rely on a minor league system consistently producing good players. Unfortunately, the Phillies’ farm system hasn’t developed many impact hitters in recent years.
And that is the real reason the Phillies need to sign him. They need an impact bat in the middle of the order, and Harper is the only real option to provide that. The Phillies can easily afford to pay him, and perhaps more importantly, even if he does decline in the back half of the deal, they have enough money that it shouldn’t cripple their ability to spend further.