Bryce Harper, $330 million bargain? Sizing up his first five years with the Phillies, and what’s ahead

Tribune Content Agency

John Middleton welcomed a visitor to his office overlooking the outfield at BayCare Ballpark in Clearwater, Florida. It was the middle of February. Phillies pitchers and catchers had just completed their first spring-training workout, with the first full-squad session a few days away.

What better time for the owner to crow about his star-laden roster, especially the biggest star of all?

“I wasn’t entirely joking when I said I think I may have underpaid Bryce Harper,” Middleton told said that day, referring to his on-field remark in the din of the Phillies’ pennant-winning celebration last October. “Because how many guys hit a home run in the bottom of the eighth inning of the clinching game? The true great ones, it’s hard to overpay them.”

Middleton’s words resonated last week, as Harper ended August ablaze. In his last 13 games entering the weekend series in Milwaukee, he had 22 hits — eight home runs — and twice as many walks (10) as strikeouts (five). He slugged 1.063 and had a 1.636 OPS. His last swing of the month produced a go-ahead two-run homer against tough lefty reliever Matt Moore.

Oh, and as you might have heard, it happened to be Harper’s 300th career dinger.

Harper considered it a “steppingstone” (his words) as much as a milestone, and he isn’t being immodest. He made his major league debut as a 19-year-old in 2012 and became the fourth-youngest active player to hit No. 300 (he will turn 31 on Oct. 16). There are almost certainly larger, rounder numbers to come in the eight seasons that remain on the 13-year, $330 million contract that his boss increasingly believes might somehow be a … gulp! … bargain.

Is that even possible? So far, at least, the accounting — statistical and financial — actually supports Middleton’s intuition.

Harper signed with the Phillies in 2019 and totaled 4.0, 1.9, 6.6, 2.4, and 2.5 (so far this season) wins above replacement per year, according to Fangraphs’ calculation, for a total of 17.4 WAR. Fangraphs values each win at roughly $8 million. Based on that wins-to-dollars formula, Harper’s production with the Phillies is worth approximately $139 million. By the end of the season, they will have paid him $110.93 million, including the 37% prorated salary that all players received in the 60-game 2020 season.

So, yes, the bang has exceeded the bucks — and that’s before anyone tries to estimate how much cash the Phillies have made back from Harper merch, including all those No. 3 jerseys and MV3 T-shirts that dot the seats at Citizens Bank Park.

But while Harper’s first five seasons in red pinstripes have exceeded even Middleton’s and then-general manager Matt Klentak’s imaginations when they negotiated what was then the largest free-agent payout in baseball history, team officials did believe strongly that the contract would age well. Harper was 26 when he signed it, young relative to most free agents. All of the Phillies’ projection models indicated his best seasons were still ahead of him.

It has turned out that way. In his last five seasons with the Nationals, Harper had a 144 OPS+, meaning he was 44% better than league average. With the Phillies, he entered the weekend with a 150 OPS+. His overall slash line from 2014 to 2018: .282/.401/.525; from 2019 to 2023: .287/.395/.538. He won an MVP with the Nationals in 2015 and with the Phillies in 2021.

But Harper’s robust August — part of a .331/.423/.638, 12-homer second half (going into Friday) that will spark down-ballot MVP attention — got us thinking about more macro questions, such as: Where does Harper’s production in the first five Phillies seasons rank relative to other players who signed decadelong deals? And what does it portend, if anything, about the rest of Harper’s contract? Let’s dig deeper.

The long game

There have been 22 contracts of 10 or more seasons in length, including four that were agreed upon before this season. But before Manny Machado, Harper, and Mike Trout signed for 10, 13, and 12 years, respectively, in spring training of 2019, there were only eight such contracts:

Alex Rodríguez signed his first megadeal before his age-25 season and put up numbers in his first five years (154 OPS+, 240 homers, 42.7 WAR) that were every bit as unreal as they appeared. He later admitted to performance-enhancing drug use from at least 2001 to 2003. Robinson Canó got popped twice for PEDs later in his career, calling into question his 21.4 WAR through five years in Seattle.

Albert Pujols’ production nosedived to a 123 OPS+ and 8.9 WAR in his first five years with the Angels compared with a 172 OPS+ and 35.5 WAR in his last five with the Cardinals and declined more sharply thereafter. But he was older (32) when he arrived in Anaheim and represented more of a risk from an actuarial standpoint.

Joey Votto, 30 when he agreed to stay put in Cincinnati, remained an on-base machine for the first half of his contract before age and injuries took a toll over the last five years. Injuries short-circuited Troy Tulowitzki.

Giancarlo Stanton is a better comp to Harper based on his age (25) when he signed long-term with the Marlins. That contract looks disastrous now given Stanton’s health saga with the Yankees. But the first five years (144 OPS+, 154 homers, 16.9 WAR, boosted by an MVP season in 2017) were nearly identical to the preceding five (144 OPS+, 154 homers, 21.5 WAR).

Harper tends to be measured mostly against Trout and Machado, and their numbers since 2019 are relatively similar. But Trout has played in 130 fewer games than Harper because of unceasing injuries, while Machado is at the center of what some around the league characterize as a dysfunctional clubhouse dynamic with the Padres.

Those problems don’t exist in Philadelphia, where Harper has authored the playbook for thriving in a notoriously demanding market. It started with his neon green Phanatic cleats on opening day 2019. He routinely professes his love for the fans and insists it’s genuine. It feels genuine. But when he admitted last week that he listens to WIP and cited “Chuck from Mount Airy” as inspiration for hitting a homer, well, that’s just next-level Philly-ness.

“He’s been a perfect fit for Philly,” one National League executive said last week. “He’s just so smart about what to say or do and anticipating how it will resonate with the fan base.”

Futures market

Given their age and experience, most free agents — Pujols, for example — are paid for past performance. Not Harper. Because the Phillies were buying more potential peak seasons, team officials figured the surplus value that they projected Harper would provide in the first half of the contract would make up for the likelihood of a decline as he ages in later seasons.

But Harper is nearly halfway to 3,000 hits (1,493 entering the weekend) with a month left in his age-30 season and says he has his sights set on 500 or more homers. And the chances of a drop-off from that Hall of Fame track may be further mitigated, or at least delayed, by the arrival of the designated hitter in the National League. The DH already enabled Harper to stay in the lineup for much of the last two seasons after he tore a ligament in his elbow and returned from Tommy John surgery.

Besides, when it comes to Harper, Middleton doesn’t put much stock in actuarial science anyway.

“I get the factor that, if you took 10,000 athletes, not all 10,000 are going to perform in those later years and maybe a substantial majority will underperform,” Middleton said. “But we’ll see. Just because 9,000 of them do [underperform] doesn’t mean Bryce will.”

Or if he does, it may not happen until much later in his contract than most free agents. If that’s the case, Middleton can say for certain that Harper was a $330 million bargain. The Phillies might even consider tacking on a few extra years to the end of the contract. Harper has stated repeatedly that he wants to play beyond age 40. His Phillies contract runs through his age-38 season.

“And if you’re overpaying 10 years from now for an athlete who got you a couple, two or three World Series titles, I mean, what do I care?” Middleton said. “Seriously. What do I care? And I can guarantee that none of our fans would care.”