Back in February 2014, Fangraphs' Dave Cameron, in the wake of incessant rumors of an impending Mike Trout extension with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, speculated on just how much a truly fair long-term deal with Trout would be worth. Cameron discovered, while comparing Trout's value to the most expensive deals that had already been signed, that there was no way you could possibly pay Trout what he should have coming, writing, "While we could put together a reasonable argument that Trout is worth $50M per year for his free agent years, he's not going to get that; it's just too far removed from the norms of the day." A month later, the Angels signed Trout to a six-year, $144.5 million deal that Cameron simply could not believe they got away with.
Last year, after Bryce Harper's MVP season, FiveThirtyEight's Neil Paine, knowing that Harper was only a few years away from free agency, tried to figure out just how much he was worth to the Nationals in 2015. Using the rough Fangraphs figure of $7.7 million per Win Over Replacement -- which was the estimated market value at the time, and around where it would be now, though as always it's complicated -- Paine argued that Harper, who had just put together a 9.7 WAR season, one of the 100 best seasons of all-time (at the age of 23!), was worth $75.4 million. Just in the 2015 season. Paine concluded that, because of the escalating baseball salaries and MLB's salary structure system artificially pushing down the pay of players under team control, Harper, who made only $2.5 million in 2015, had earned the Nationals $72.9 million in free production, the highest single-season total in baseball history. (The next three highest totals were all Mike Trout, in 2012, 2013 and 2015.)
Which brings us to the big buzzing story from the Winter Meetings on Monday, USA TODAY Sports' "scoop" from a "high-ranking executive" with the Nationals that the team "made it clear they have no intention of meeting Bryce Harper's request for a record-setting contract to avert free agency in two years." How much was Harper supposedly asking? A 10-year contract that paid him a "minimum" of $400 million.
There were conflicting reports, however. Harper's agent, Scott Boras, told MLB.com's Jon Morosi that the two sides have had "no long-term discussions" and that current talks with the team solely concerned the 2017 season, when Harper is eligible for arbitration.
With the Nationals clearly investing in their pitching staff for the next half-decade, and essentially half the sport gearing up for the lunatic crackers bananas free agent class of 2018 (which includes Harper), it would seem to benefit the Nats from a public relations standpoint if Harper's alleged demand looks unreasonable, as he is coming off the worst year of his career. Consider the reaction to the leaked amount:
Bryce Harper wants a $400 million contract with the Nationals. His hair products must be very expensive.- Fake SportsCenter (@FakeSportsCentr) December 5, 2016
Looks at Bryce Harper's stats. Sees he's asking for $400M. pic.twitter.com/XmmK72UMNE- Alvin aqua Blanco (@Aqua174) December 5, 2016
If Bryce Harper is asking 10 years 400+ million after 2018 then Mike Trout needs to ask for 1 billion- Nick Ezzi (@nickEZZI19) December 5, 2016
That last one is instructive, because there we are, again, back on Trout. The argument that goes "if Harper is worth $400 million, Trout is worth $1 billion" assumes that Trout is in the same position that Harper will be in come 2018. Had Trout not signed that extension in 2014, he would be entering his walk year this year, meaning, almost certainly, the Angels would be trading him right now and he'd be about to enter free agency at the age of 26. Can you imagine? He might not be getting a billion-dollar salary … but it'd have to be close, right? Let's call the new WAR salary figure $8 million a win. If Trout did over the next five seasons what he did over the last five seasons, he would be worth $376.8 million … just over the next five years.
And remember: Trout would just be entering his prime in that scenario. If he signed a $500 million, 10-year deal, especially when you account for inflation and increasing payrolls, he'd still be underpaid. So the notion that $400 million over $10 years is an absurd number is just wrong. I know $400 million is too much for someone with a normal schlumpy job like you and me to comprehend, but Major League Baseball makes a lot of money, and therefore teams have a lot of money to pay the men who are best at playing its game.
Unfortunately for Trout, he signed that extension, so he won't be a free agent until after 2020 when he's 29 years old. So, then, what about Harper? Harper will turn 26 in October of 2018, which means he will still be approaching his peak. Whatever team gets him will be buying his prime -- all of it. If he signed a 10-year contract, when that contract ends, he would be as old as Matt Holliday is right now (and Holliday just signed a one-year deal with the Yankees for $13 million). While Harper might not be the player that Trout is -- though in 2015, it's worth noting, he was in fact better -- he is in a far more advantageous position in terms of maximizing a free-agent contract after 2018. Trout could have been in that position, but he decided to sign that extension with the Angels. Harper bet on himself and now can capitalize. That Trout is a better player than Harper, at least when it comes to the market, is irrelevant.
Is $400 million unreasonable for Harper? Obviously, 2016 didn't go nearly as well for him as 2015 did, but it wasn't the disaster it was made out to be. Even in his bottoming-out year, Harper put up a WAR of 3.5, according to Fangraphs, which was more than Ryan Braun, Matt Carpenter, Yoenis Cespedes, Chris Davis, Mark Trumbo and about 250 other guys. And going by the $8 million per WAR figure -- again, an estimation, but one that's probably an underestimation moving forward -- that's a $28 million season. The worst year of his career, one that every baseball talent evaluator sees as a blip, and he still put up a $28 million season. At the age of 23.
Even just looking at the past two seasons, Harper has been worth an average of more than $50 million a season. If you think last year was the real Harper (which is a stretch), $400 million is more than Harper is worth. But even if he alternated great years and "down" years, something he's unlikely to do, he'd still be a bargain.
If Harper really wants that kind of money, he's not being unreasonable. He's likely selling himself short.