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February 28, 2019 [LINK / comment]

Mourning in D.C.: Bryce Harper picks Philadelphia frown

The worst-case scenario for fans of the Washington Nationals finally materialized late this afternoon: their superstar hero (and probable future Hall-of-Famer) Bryce Harper accepted a fat and juicy contract offer from the Philadelphia Phillies. He will be getting a total of $330 million over a period of 13 years, or $25.4 million a year. Significantly, the terms include a full no-trade clause and no opt-outs, so unless there is a mutual change of heart, Bryce will be playing in the City of Brotherly Love through the year 2031. (That's just too far in the future to even contemplate.) It is the biggest contract in MLB history, just barely surpassing the (then-) Florida Marlins' $325 million, 13-year contract with Giancarlo Stanton in November 2014. See for more details.

One wonders, "Why would Bryce accept an annual salary that was $4.6 million less than what the Lerners offered him five months ago?" The reported terms back then were $300 million over ten years, which I thought was quite fair and competitive. Part of the answer has to do with the weaker-than-expected market for free agents (no collusion!), which has left several big stars such as Dallas Keuchel still looking for a job this year. Until the news today, it appeared that Harper's agent Scott Boras had served him poorly, and it seemed possible that he might have to settle for a shorter-term contract with the Dodgers or the Giants. But the terms he got from the Phillies were more than satisfactory. But the big difference between this contract and what the Nationals offered is that the latter's terms including a big chunk of "deferred salary," meaning that the team would in effect issue IOUs that would be redeemed for several years beyond the end of the contract. That might have been a deal-breaker for Bryce.

Just as a side note, the deferred salary is a rather cheap gimmick that the Nationals' front office has used more than once, and it reflects in part the financial constraint imposed by the unfair terms of the TV revenue rights deal with the Baltimore Orioles. MLB officials have worked to resolve that issue in recent months, so hopefully the Nats will be in a better money position before long.

Another factor favoring the Phillies may be the stadium, or more specifically, the size of the outfield. Citizens Bank Park has about 105,000 square feet of fair territory, about four percent less than the 109,100 square feet in Nationals Park. Indeed, the Phillies enjoy the most home-run friendly ballpark in the major leagues right now. Bryce has hit 184 homers during his seven years with the Nats (peaking at 42 during his MVP year, 2015), and if you figure that his career is only one-third over, he could end up with another 368 homers, for a total of 552. But if you add the ballpark factor over a period of 13 years, he could conceivably raise that home run total by 100 or more, which would put him in sixth place in the all-time list, just behind Willie Mays (660).

Citizens Bank Park, Nationals Park outfields

The outfield portions of Citizens Bank Park, with Nationals Park superimposed. Balls hit into the areas colored pink would be home runs in the former but not the latter, and the converse would be true in the (much smaller) areas colored violet.

It wouldn't have been so bad if he had signed with the L.A. Dodgers or San Francisco Giants, but now we're going to have face him 19 times a year. Ugh. The Nats had an 11-8 record against the Phillies last year, but things will be a lot different this year. Indeed, with their other acquisitions and with the Atlanta Braves determined to repeat as division champions, the NL East will be fiercely contested this year. Bryce will make his first appearance with the Phillies in Washington on April 2. (If it were the day before, we could perhaps pretend that it was all just a gag.) How will D.C. fans greet him? I hope they show more class than fans in certain other cities. It's going to be hard as hell getting used to seeing Bryce in a Phillies uniform. I suppose the sooner we get this over with the better...

Bryce Harper fake Phillies hat

WARNING: FAKE PHOTO! A melancholy-looking Bryce Harper on September 21, during the one of the last home games he played as a National, with Ryan Howard's cap (from my visit to Philadelphia in 2016) artificially superimposed.

The first time I mentioned Bryce Harper was in June 2010, when the Nationals used their #1 pick to draft him. (I had almost forgotten that he was a catcher in his college days.) Two months later he signed a five-year contract totaling $9.9 million, a record for a rookie position player. After a year in the minors, he made a big splash in his debut with the Nationals in late April 2012, and in November he was chosen as National League Rookie of the Year. Three years later (November 2015) he was chosen as the National League Most Valuable Player. He has had his ups and downs in the years since then, but he was undoubtedly a crucial factor in the Nationals winning four divisional titles during his years in D.C. And so I say:

Thanks for seven GREAT years with the Nats, Bryce!
You'll be remembered well!

Posted (or last updated or commented upon): 01 Mar 2019, 2: 16 AM

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