How the Dodgers Dodged a Major Bullet

On Saturday, it became official, Bryce Harper is the newest member of the Philadelphia Phillies. And he did so in style, signing the most lucrative contract in the history of professional sports at 13 years and $330 million. The Scott Boras client achieved both his and his agent’s goal, become the highest paid professional athlete in the history of the world.

Congratulations to Bryce Harper. When it is all said and done, he will have earned one third of a billion dollars, one third of a BILLION dollars, just to play a game. He is truly living the dream. This is also a major win for Scott Boras, whom many refer to as the MLB’s 31st general manager. Boras, the most famous (or infamous) agent in all of sports continues to prove to players why signing on with him is a guarantee to become wealthy. However, as with anything, not everybody is a winner and in this scenario, the Philadelphia Phillies are the biggest losers.

The Phillies entered the offseason in as bad a losing situation I’ve ever seen a team enter the offseason (sans the Lakers this offseason). From the outset of the winter, Phillies owner John Middleton made a remark that the team was going to spend “stupid” money in order to obtain a high profile free agent (the likes of Bryce Harper or Manny Machado). Had Philadelphia gone into the season without either Machado or Harper, the only thing looking “stupid” would have been John Middleton for writing verbal checks he couldn’t cash.

Well, Middleton made his prophecy become a reality. After it was announced a week earlier that Manny Machado would be taking his talents to San Diego, it became quite clear that Bryce was Philly’s player to miss out on. This nearly became a reality for Middleton when every pro athlete’s dream destination (Los Angeles) and the champions of three World Series this decade (San Francisco) entered the negotiations late. At one point, it appeared as though Philadelphia had conceded the bidding process to the bitter rivalry of the Dodgers and Giants. Leading up to the hours before it was announced that Bryce Haprer would become a member of the Phillies, high profile insiders and writers concluded that Los Angeles was the favorite to land Harper.

In a somewhat swift turn of events however, the news broke on the afternoon of February’s final day that the team who had long been viewed as the most desperate for the services of Bryce Harper would have their wishes met. In doing so, the Phillies, who have not sniffed postseason baseball since 2011 have polished off a busy offseason that will lead to the first taste of October baseball in nearly a decade. With the addition, Philadelphia is adding another former MVP and perennial all-star to the cast of Realmuto, Segura, McCutchen and Robertson. The 2019 Phillies are going to be one of MLB’s best teams barring injury. With that being said, Philadelphia is the biggest loser in the Bryce Harper sweepstakes.

A potential postseason run this season and couple more does not justify the irresponsible contract the Phillies tendered to Bryce Harper. If Philadelphia winds up making a postseason run, fans and pundits will mistakenly credit Bryce Harper for being the man to finally end the playoff drought in the city of brotherly love. Last season, Philadelphia’s two biggest spots of deficiency lied at the 6 and the 2, shortstop and catcher. Through adding MLB’s best offensive backstop as well as an all-star shortstop, Philly addressed their main concerns. Adding another right handed bat in the form of Andrew McCutchen as well as an all-star reliever in the form of David Robertson are other moves to solidify a team after addressing the two biggest holes. Is Bryce Harper an upgrade in the lineup? Sure, offensively he will certainly boost the team and add a feared presence to an already deep glut of offensive talent, but Bryce was simply the icing on the cake.

I say this because I know Philadelphia will go through stretches of offensive dominance this season that will propel them into October and I am certain the Dodgers will go through offensive droughts at points this season. That is just baseball. But let this serve as a warning to you Dodgers fans, DO NOT go on Twitter and say things like “We should’ve gotten Harper”, “Friedman is cheap”, “This front office sucks” or my personal favorite “Fire Dave Roberts”. I’m speaking to you Fraudman Twitter. Don’t say things like this unless you would like to look like an absolute fool and have your freezing cold takes get exposed at a later date.

The Dodgers dodged a major bullet by refusing to meet the ludacris demands of Scott Boras and Bryce Harper. 13 years? I know of marriages that don’t even last a quarter of that time. Many of you spry young readers that are viewing this right now will be eligible for AARP and various senior discounts by the time Bryce Harper makes his final rounds to Los Angeles during his swan song in the final year of this massive contract.

I know, I know, inflation! “It’s only $25 million a year, in a few years that will be nothing.” Well not really, $25 million would literally solve every potential problem I have in my life and I could never work a day in my life and retire on that, but that’s aside from the point. The point is, Bryce Harper is not worth $25 million a year.

According to Fangraphs, a win in baseball is worth $9 million. The advanced metric WAR, wins above replacement, that has made every batting average dinosaur shake their cane at Brian Kenny on MLB Network, is essentially a compilation and evaluation of data on a player broken down into one number. And that number is the calculated number of wins said player was worth individually. So a player with a WAR of 1 would be worth $9 million, WAR of 2 would be worth $18 million, WAR of 3 would be worth $27 million and so on.

Bryce Harper’s 2018 WAR, the year before he enters the free agent market, you ask? 1.3. Pull out your iPhones and get on your calculators folks, punch in 1.3 times 9, that comes out to 11.7. $11.7 million is what Bryce Harper was worth last season, which is roughly the same amount of money Marwin Gonzalez is going to make with the Minnesota Twins next year. Bryce Harper wasn’t the only free agent outfielder that came off a season where he was worth 1.3 wins, Billy Hamilton was also on the free agent market and he had an identical WAR to Bryce Harper. So we should just assume that Billy Hamilton was given a massive contract over ten years worth upwards of $25 million per year, right? Oh wait, he got non-tendered by his own team, the Cincinnati Reds, a last place team. What happened after you ask, well, Hamilton signed with another last place team, for roughly $6 million. This is only a single year pact by the way.

Certain tools deteriorate worse than others in MLB players, specifically base running and defensive ability. Usually when a player hits that dreaded age 30, advanced defensive metrics usually get worse and worse as the years go on, until they retire. Now a 26 year old who plays the outfield and just received a contract for $330 million should be fielding at an excellent clip, or at least slightly above average, right? Well, that is simply not the case for Bryce Harper.

Bryce Harper is simply a poor fielder and the bad news for the Phillies is that it will not be getting better any time soon. If you factor out his rookie season, Bryce Harper had been nothing but a liability for Washington, posting a -12 DRS (defensive runs saved), -7 UZR (ultimate zone rating) and a -4.5 dWAR (defensive wins above replacement). Yikes. Those numbers are unacceptable for somebody who is not getting any younger and every year will only look like more of a thief every season for taking $25 million out of the Phillies payroll.

Harper’s career offensive numbers are superb no doubt but even those are inflated by an MVP season that looks like an outlier in an otherwise above average offensive career, not an elite one. If you factor out Harper’s MVP season, he owns a career 129 OPS+ and a 129 wRC+, for both of these metrics, 100 is league average. Sitting at 129 for both, Harper is clearly above league average and is also more productive offensively than the average ballplayer.

However, Harper’s offensive numbers are not so incredible that it makes up for his porous defense. I would be worried for Bryce if he was going to the American League, where he could at least be hidden as a designated hitter, but he won’t even have this luxury with a National League ball club. If he’s already well below league average as a fielder at only 26 years old, can you just imagine how much of a liability he is going to be for the Phillies when hes 36 years old?

Now let’s just throw statistics out of the window for a moment and focus on something else that nobody else seems to be picking up on. For years, seemingly since before his MVP campaign in 2015, baseball analysts and fans couldn’t stop yammering about Bryce Harper’s pending free agency ahead of the 2019 season. Of course, Bryce Harper did nothing to put out the fire, with Scott Boras as his agent in conjunction to leaked reports of the duo being on the lookout for a contract worth half a billion dollars at one point.

It was fair to assume that Bryce was absolutely eating up this limelight. After all, he has not shied away from the big stage, having been on the biggest stage since he was just a teenager. Harper has also built his brand as being more than just a baseball player, he is a personality first. He is the closest thing MLB has to a global star like LeBron James or Cristiano Ronaldo. Despite baseball’s transition to analytics and efficiency while operating under the luxury tax, Bryce Harper is the rare ballplayer that an ownership group would break the bank for not as much for his offensive production, but even more so for his personality and name recognition. Adding such a high profile star to a team does wonders for marketing and boosts profits.

The Dodgers were in fact prepared to break the bank for MLB’s highest profile star, as they offered him $45 million per year on a 4 year pact. Had Bryce Harper signed this contract, his brand would have shifted from MLB’s global star to a larger than life entertainment figure in Hollywood, an absolute household name. There is no better place to flourish as a pop culture fixture than Los Angeles aka The Entertainment Capital of the World after all.

Of course, one deciding to take their talents to a new city is a monumental moment in the life of a professional athlete. To be an ideal fit, such a team would be required to offer more than just the Hollywood limelight, they must also provide said player with the opportunity to boost their legacy and further advance their hall of fame career. Oh wait, the Dodgers offer this as well. Coming off back to back World Series appearances, Los Angeles has proven they are the class of the National League and are actively contending for a World Series championship. Although nothing in life is certain, it is fair to assume that adding such a player like Bryce Harper to an already established juggernaut would give the Dodgers as good a chance as any team to bring championships (emphasis on the “s”) for the next 4 years.

How about the fact that had Bryce Harper signed this deal with the Dodgers, he and Scott Boras would become revolutionaries, trailblazers in the baseball community for the rest of time. Baseball contracts to high profile players have become long term pacts in the 7-10+ year range, with financial security. Unfortunately, most of the contracts become disastrous for both the organization and they athlete. From the organizational perspective, what was once seen as a large monetary commitment to the face of a franchise turns a financial liability to an old player who is a hollow shell of their former self. As for the player, they often wind up ending their careers on lousy teams that have regressed because their money is committed to somebody who is being insanely overpaid. If the team is miraculously in contention, the aging player is often buried in the depth chart, receiving no playing time because their team is forced to hang onto them for the fact that nobody else is willing to take on the contractual obligation. These contracts are a flat out disaster for all parties involved.

Harper was afforded the opportunity to change MLB free agency forever. Massive average annual value contracts for a shorter term would allow a player to cash in on their abilities while still having the flexibility to control their destiny. Think about it, Harper would have re-entered the free agent market as a 30 year old, where it is fair to project he would be capable of earning himself at least one more long term contract. If Albert Pujols, 8 years ago, received a $250 million contract, it is certainly not far fetched to assume that Bryce Harper could earn a contract worth at least $150 million, is it? Apparently Harper thinks it’s far fetched.

Athletes send messages through their actions, indirectly. This is why team representatives and the media ask football players about to enter the draft uncomfortable and inappropriate questions at the scouting combine. The way in which the football player responds to such a question reveals their character. Simply asking a player if they have a bad temper is useless, but asking them something that pries into their insecurities will reveal the actual answer.

Bryce Harper would never go out and declare that he does not have the confidence to re-enter the free agent market again in 4 short years, but through rejecting the Dodgers short term contract, he has revealed that he does not believe in his abilities enough to go back on the open market at age 30. Harper is aware of the fact that his defense is porous, aware of the fact that outside of his MVP season his offensive prowess is not enough to make up for his defensive shortcomings and he is aware of the fact that he is not going to age well. Dodgers fans and fans of any team that did not land Harper, consider yourself lucky. Bryce Harper is not going to age well and about 6 years into his new contract, the Phillies are going to begin regretting it, a few years later they will be coercing him into becoming a first baseman and by about year 10, let’s just say the Phillies will be praying to the baseball Gods that the DH becomes universal.

Ian Nielson has served as a writer and contributor for @DodgersLowDown since 2018.