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How 10-year deals would have worked for players like Bryce Harper and Manny Machado throughout baseball history

Here are the players in MLB history who were this good before turning 26, and here’s how good they were a decade later.

Washington Nationals v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Bryce Harper and Manny Machado are both young, unique superstars who are currently free agents, but they remain unsigned. Perhaps you’ve heard about this. Perhaps you’re just overwhelmed with all of the other baseball news, like the Cubs hiring Craig Breslow in a front office position, or the Blake Parker deal becoming official, but it’s true. Harper and Machado are still out there, waiting for a team to give them millions.

The question, then, is should a team give them those millions. Specifically, scores of millions over a 10-year stretch. To do this, we’ll have to figure out just how good Harper and Machado have been through the age of 25, and then we’ll look for the players who were just as good or better.

I regret to inform you, gentle reader, that Wins Above Replacement is still the best way to do this. There are several problems that come with cramming a player’s entire worth into one number, yes. For example, I’m not convinced that Bryce Harper’s 2018 season (.393 on-base percentage, 34 home runs) was exactly as valuable as Dann Bilardello’s 1983 season (.274 OBP, 9 HR) because of defensive differences. Still, there are more problems that come with ignoring era, park effects, and defense.

I mean, if you want to use a list of players with 500 RBI before they were 26, you’ll still get a pretty sweet list of baseball players. Go on, gramps. Use it. I really don’t care. We’ll get to the same conclusion.

No, I’m going to use WAR, home runs, and OPS+ to make sure that we’re talking about similar players. That is, players who were accumulating a huge chunk of their value with their power bats. Not that there’s anything wrong or suspicious about defense-first players, but they’re imperfect comps for Harpchado.

We’ll go with 20 or more WAR, 150 homers or more, and an adjusted OPS of 110 or better before the age of 25. This isn’t total cherry-picking, as both players clear all three benchmarks comfortably. Harper currently has 27.4 WAR according to Baseball-Reference, an OPS+ of 139, and 184 homers. Machado has 33.8 WAR, a 121 OPS+, and 175 HR.

How many players have reached their age-26 season with this collection of statistics?

Eighteen, other than Harper and Machado.

Our job is to see if any of them would have been worth 10-year contracts that stretched from age 26 to 35. We’ll have to eliminate Mike Trout and Giancarlo Stanton because their careers are still unwritten tomes, which means that we’re down to 16 players. We’ll go in chronological order.

Jimmie Foxx

Foxx was washed up by the time he was 34, either because he was hit in the head during a barnstorming tour or because he was an alcoholic, depending on which side of the causation-correlation line you want to land. But, boy, did he pack a lot of baseball into those eight years.

Conclusion: Worth it

Mel Ott

Ott was an All-Star for all 10 seasons between 26 and 35 years old, finishing in the top 10 for MVP voting in all of them. Dude was good.

Conclusion: Worth it

Joe DiMaggio

Okay, he was already light years better than Machado or Harper. So much better that he missed three years because of World War II, and he still would have been worth a 10-year deal for a ton of money.

Conclusion: Worth it

Willie Mays

Okay, maybe I don’t need to type “Conclusion: Worth it” after every one. Seems like it’s just insulting your intelligence.

And yet, maybe that’s exactly what you need to knock you down a peg, smug internet user.

Conclusion: Worth it

Eddie Mathews

Like Foxx, Mathews slowed down around his age-34 season. Also like Foxx, the good seasons were more than enough to justify a theoretical 10-year deal before his age-26 season.

Conclusion: Worth it

Hank Aaron

Hrmm, not sure about this one. We’ll have to crunch the numbers.

Conclusion: Getting bored over here

Mickey Mantle

Even with the time missed because of injuries in his early 30s, this isn’t close.

Conclusion: There has to be a better use of your time

Frank Robinson

Yes. Yes, he was excellent enough to justify a 10-year contract.

Conclusion: Screw this, I’m leaving

Orlando Cepeda

Now we’re talking! Cepeda was worth just over 24 WAR from age 26 through 35, which is an average of just over two wins a season. That’s not a player who is worth a sixth or seventh of a team’s budget.

If there’s anything instructive here, it’s that Cepeda could really, really hit, but he wasn’t suited to play defense in the majors. Before last season, I would have suggested that this profile didn’t fit either Harper or Machado, but Harper’s rough defensive year in 2018 is cause for at least a little concern. So far, this is the worst-case scenario.

Conclusion: Not worth it

Johnny Bench

Well, his career ended when he was 35, but he was a catcher. He doesn’t belong in this discussion. He was an absolute freak for his position and not relevant to Harper or Machado.

(But, yes, he would have been worth a 10-year deal).

Conclusion: Worth it

Jose Canseco

Here we go.

If you’re looking at Canseco as an avatar of a preternaturally talented player with all five tools who had a couple of tools lost by the airlines over time, he would be a fine cautionary tale for Harper. That is, if you believe in the defensive red flags.

If you’re looking at Canseco as something of a goofball who can’t avoid being in the headlines for non-baseball reasons, you might want him to be a cautionary tale for Machado.

The problem is that both of these are way too reductive. Start with the obvious difference, which is that Canseco was roided to the gills, and Harper and Machado probably aren’t. Actually, that’s the only difference you really need to consider. Don’t even worry about Machado playing two premium defensive positions, while Canseco was a DH with an arm.

Still, from the standpoint of a guy looking like an unabashed superstar and future Hall of Famer and then ... not ... being one of those, Canseco is a tale to tell with a flashlight under your chin, yes.

Conclusion: Not worth it

Ken Griffey, Jr.

For those five seasons before turning 31, he was brilliant. He was worth an average of seven wins over those five seasons. And then his body started breaking down, which you would rightly think makes him a cautionary tale.

Yet from the ages of 26 to 35, Griffey was still worth an average of just over four wins per season. That, combined with his superstar status, wouldn’t have made the contract a complete disaster. It might have even been a net positive if he were on a perennial postseason contender. So I’ll go with a “not worth it” but stick a disclaimer on there.

Conclusion: Not worth it ... but barely

Alex Rodriguez

Similar to Canseco when it comes to the part where he was roided to the gills. Different when it comes to the part where he was reliably excellent for more than a decade after his big free-agent contract was signed.

Conclusion: Totally worth it, don’t @ me

Andruw Jones

He had four more brilliant seasons before falling off a cliff, but his early 30s were brutal. Jones is a poor comparison for Harper or Machado because he was an Ozzie Smith-like savant with the glove early on, which drove a ton of his value.

Still, he’s on this list that features Several Hall of Famers and Jose Canseco because he’s probably a Hall of Famer. Just because he wouldn’t have been worth a 10-year deal doesn’t mean that it would have been a bad idea.

Conclusion: Not worth it

Miguel Cabrera

Cabrera is slowing down now, but from 25 through 36, he was one of baseball’s all-time best hitters. He’s been great, but I have some concerns with this project now.

Conclusion: Worth it

Here’s my problem with this list as it relates to Harper and Machado: Players like Cabrera, Mays, Mantle, Robinson, Ott, et al, were consistent badasses at the plate before turning 26. Harper and Machado have alternated between brilliant and kinda-sorta okay seasons, which makes them trickier to project. Just because they’ve accumulated the WAR and the dingers and the OPS+ doesn’t mean that either of them was close to being as talented as Joe DiMaggio (relative to their peers, at least). There are some years where Harper and/or Machado look like baseball deities, and some years where they look like the young players they are.

Maybe that means the best comps would be the players on this list who had the same ups and downs early in their careers.

Which would leave us with ... [checks] Andruw Jones and Jose Canseco.

Good gravy.

So I’m not sure what to believe. On one hand, there are 16 players on this list, and 14 of them are either in the Hall of Fame or will be one day. On the other hand, the two players who aren’t going into the Hall of Fame also happened to be the two whose adjusted OPS would fluctuate wildly before they turned 26, the ones who would look like MVP frontrunners one year and disappointing-if-productive regulars the next.

Regardless, the larger point is probably this: With a minimum of cherry-picking, it’s possible to include Harper and Machado on a list of inner-circle Hall of Famers. That’s how rare their careers have been so far, how special it is to do what they’ve done before turning 26. It’s so rare and special that three-quarters of the players on the list would have been worth whatever the equivalent of a 10-year, $350 million contract was in their day.

There will be risks involved, but let’s not lose sight of the fact that Harper and Machado are already in rare company. It seems like the risks are the focus of a lot of people, especially nervous fans.

Perhaps they shouldn’t be the focus, though. Perhaps we should just look at this list and wonder if Harper and Machado are still on path to be something incredibly special, just like we’ve been expecting all along.