You can tell a lot by a person by how they react to their phone buzzing in the car. Perhaps you sneak a quick peek. Perhaps you have the courage to ignore it. Maybe you grab the phone and pretend that you aren’t hurtling down a freeway in a metal-and-glass death shell, possibly while doing a shot of Fireball.
I’m a peek-sneaker. The phone is in my center console, so a quick look isn’t much different than changing the preset on a radio station, he assures himself. It could be an email from Travelocity. It could be a text from my mom. It could be a text from a long-lost friend. It could be, OK, fine, it’s always an email from Travelocity, I’m not sure who I’m trying to fool.
This was different, though. It was an alert that read ...
BRYCE HARPER SIGNS CONTRACT EXTENSION
... and it made me pull over. But before the next off-ramp, my mind was racing. There’s no way it could be a real extension, right? Why would Scott Boras give up the leverage of an offseason frenzy? Did the Nationals give him $400 million? Are we talking 12 years, or 15 years with an opt-out after every other month? What could possibly make Harper sign an extension before he was a free agent? WHAT COULD POSSIBLY MAKE H—
The alert, of course, left off a few important words. The extension was just for 2018. It bought out his final year of arbitration. He did it because it was a guaranteed salary in the place of a non-guaranteed arrangement. In the event that Harper’s lower torso is eaten by a whale, he is still guaranteed $21.625 million in 2018. That security is worth whatever money he left on the table, with there being a strong chance that he didn’t leave any.
It was a non-story, then. Harper is still on track to be the highest-paid player in baseball. He’s still the player Scott Boras created under exacting laboratory conditions to break baseball. Nothing has changed.
Since last week, that is, because plenty has changed since the start to the season. The inevitability of Harper’s record-setting mega-contract took a hit last season, when the then-23-year-old kicked off May with a four-strikeout performance and hit .235/.367/.392 for the rest of the season, which is basically Daric Barton with a few extra push-ups. He’s back on track this season, with a cool .500 on-base percentage and 12 homers. He leads the league in OBP, OPS, runs, OPS+, and intentional walks. He’s still just 24, younger than six of the players on Baseball America’s top-100 prospect ranking. And he’s just 17 months from stuffing the offseason inside a crispy shell and eating it whole.
Let’s quickly recap all of the reasons Harper will be the most expensive free agent in baseball history:
1. He’s good at baseballing
Start with the most important one, and remember that nothing else comes close.
2. He’s young
He’ll turn 26 two weeks before becoming a free agent, which means that a seven-year contract wouldn’t be over until he was theoretically still in his prime. Which means that he’ll get far, far more than seven years. All major free-agent contracts extend for two or three years too long — think Robinson Cano — but that’s the accepted cost of getting those prime years.
3. Scott Boras
You shouldn’t waste your time disliking Boras. He’s the Bryce Harper of agents, and a better reaction to him is to be constantly and thoroughly impressed. It’s been two decades since he’s had a perfect storm quite like this, and it will be fascinating to watch him conduct this particular offseason symphony.
4. The Nationals
They’re generally buying what Boras is selling. From Max Scherzer, to Stephen Strasburg, to Matt Wieters, the synergy between agent and organization is well-established. Not only is Harper the face of the franchise, he’s the face of a newer franchise that’s still trying to win over a region. They will have 400 million reasons to keep Harper around.
Which means there’s at least one heavy-spending behemoth willing to spend Boras-tinged prices on a superstar.
5. The big-market monsters with money to spend
Thanks to Corey Seager, Julio Urias, and Cody Bellinger, the Dodgers should have some low-cost stars to subsidize their major-league roster. They have just $105 million committed to their 2019 roster, which isn’t much at all for a team willing to approach $300 million.
The Yankees will have just $74.2 million committed to four players, and while they’re still half-heartedly on their austerity kick, they probably won’t stay there once their young core starts to subsidize their roster, too.
And you know there will be a weirdo team mixed in. Like the Rockies. Just because that’s how these things always work. So not only do you have the Nationals, with a cozy relationship with Boras and an obvious desire to keep the best player they might ever draft for the next 100 years, but you’ll have some big-market bullies in the right stage of the success cycle, with money coming off their books.
These are all reasons that Harper won’t sign a contract extension before the end of the 2018 World Series. Will not. No way. Not going to happen.
Those, but with a bigger lock and a bigger shoe. Think of Bryce Harper’s eventual contract as being represented by a contract-o-meter with five levels:
- Smaller post-catastrophe deal with an opt-out
- Top-five contract in baseball
- Biggest contract in baseball history
- Biggest contract in baseball history by more than $100 million
- Moon base
He’s right between the third and fourth options, closer to the fourth. That’s a shift from this offseason, when he was probably a solid No. 3, but trending downward. The trend is up now, and even if there are apps that want to make me get in an accident, we can be sure that this is the last contract extension that Bryce Harper will sign for a decade, unless it’s the last one he ever signs. The next step is free agency, which he will dominate in a way that even his agent couldn’t have foreseen two decades ago.
As you were, then. Everything is still on track.