It's already happening.
People are already talking about the upcoming free agency of Nationals wunderkind Bryce Harper. And by people I mean fans, members of the media, and surely folks working inside the game for the 30 MLB clubs.
Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports wrote about Harper's free agency last week. So did the Red Sox blog Over The Monster and the Yankees blog River Ave. Blues, among others. Check out the Google results for "bryce harper free agency." Everyone is looking forward to seeing Harper's next contract and where he'll end up.
There's a catch though: Harper will not be a free agent for another three seasons. Not until the 2018-19 offseason, during which he will turn the ripe old age of 26. The Nationals control Harper as an arbitration-eligible player through 2018. He will then be able to offer his services to the highest bidder.
Harper is a superstar of the first order -- he's coming off arguably the greatest season by a 22-year-old position player ever -- and players of his caliber almost never make it to free agency. Certainly not in their mid-20s. All the talk about Harper's free agency? This is only the beginning. So get used to it.
We are still a long way from Harper's free agency, of course. Three years is a long time in the real world and especially so in the baseball world. The prospect of your favorite team signing Harper is super exciting. Everyone wants him. It's also important to maintain perspective given how far away he is from hitting the market.
A lot can change in three years. A lot.
This has to be repeated. The baseball landscape will look very different in three years, especially financially as more fans cut the cord and MLB continues to embrace online streaming options. All those massive television contracts will be impacted as technology improves. After all, three years ago did you expect the Diamondbacks would one day shell out over $200 million for Zack Greinke? Of course not.
For now, let's stick with the on-field stuff. To give you an idea of exactly how much can change in three years, I present to you the 2013 position player leaders in WAR:
- Mike Trout (10.8 WAR) - still awesome
- Robinson Cano (8.4 WAR) - still very good but appears to be starting his decline
- Buster Posey (7.3 WAR) - still awesome but spending more time at first base each year
- Adrian Beltre (7.2 WAR) - still very good but in decline
- Miguel Cabrera (7.2 WAR) - still awesome but appears to be starting his decline
- Andrew McCutchen (7.0 WAR) - still awesome
- David Wright (7.0 WAR) - has not played a full healthy season since 2012
- Ryan Braun (6.9 WAR) - oh geez
- Yadier Molina (6.9 WAR) - still a fine defender but health and offense are big issues
- Chase Headley (6.3 WAR) - yikes
How many of those top 10 players by WAR in 2012 can be considered top 10 players heading into 2016? I say four: Trout, Posey, Cabrera, and McCutchen. That's it. You might be able to talk me out of Cabrera as a top 10 players given his recent injury issues too.
Yes, Harper is younger now than all of those non-Trout players back then, and he's arguably better than all of them, but he is not invincible. Players get hurt -- Harper has had his own injury problems over the years, mostly because he plays so hard and recklessly -- or they lose a core skill. It happens. We see it every year.
If I had to put money on it, I would bet on Harper still being a megastar come the 2018-19 offseason. He's so good and so young. In fact, I actually think he can still take his game to another level and be even better than he was in 2015 going forward. I think there's some more power in there waiting to be unleashed.
That said, three years is a very long time in baseball, and this element of the unknown is always going to exist.
If the Nats want to talk extension, it'll cost them.
Clayton Kershaw, Felix Hernandez, and Justin Verlander were all scheduled to become free agents during the 2014-15 offseason. I remember there was talk the Yankees would spend $400-plus million to sign both Kershaw and Felix. It was going to be a fun free agent class. Then all three players signed long-term contract extensions with their teams and never even hit free agency.
Harper is a Scott Boras client, and Boras is known for taking his elite players into free agency whenever possible. That isn't to say Harper and Boras are completely unwilling to talk about a long-term extension with the Nationals -- they would be foolish not to listen -- it's just that the Nationals aren't going to get him cheap. That ship sailed a long time ago.
To even get Harper and Boras to the table, the Nationals are going to have to start with Giancarlo Stanton's massive 13-year, $325 million extension with the Marlins. Harper is both younger and better than Stanton was when he signed his deal, so that's a starting point. The Nationals might have to begin extension talks at $400 million to really grab Harper's and Boras' attention.
The Jayson Werth, Gio Gonzalez, and Daniel Murphy contract will all be off the books come the 2018-19 offseason. In fact, the Nats only have $53 million in 2019 contract obligations right now, with Max Scherzer and Ryan Zimmerman accounting for all of it. That is the final year of Zimmerman's contract too.
While an extension with the Nationals is unlikely, we shouldn't completely rule it out. The club could have more TV money in a few years depending how the MASN dispute with the Orioles shakes out, plus team owner Ted Lerner is one of the wealthiest men in the world and the wealthiest owner in MLB.
Whatever you think it'll cost to sign Harper as a free agent is too low.
Assuming all goes according to plan, Harper is going to hit free agency in three years as a 26-year-old superstar. His earning potential is enormous and a record contract is inevitable.
Boras is known to set contract records, and Harper will be his next chance to send a shockwave through baseball. Remember when Alex Rodriguez was a free agent during the 2000-01 offseason? He was a 25-year-old megastar at the time, similar to Harper.
Boras landed A-Rod a then unfathomable 10-year, $252 million contract that to this day stands as the third-richest contract in baseball history. Only Stanton's deal and A-Rod's new contract with the Yankees in 2007 (10-year, $275 million) have eclipsed it.
That $252 million contract was exactly double the richest sports contract at the time: Kevin Garnett's $126 million deal with the NBA's Minnesota Timberwolves. The richest MLB contract at the time was Mike Hampton's eight-year, $121 million deal with the Rockies.
Boras shattered the sports contract record with A-Rod and he's going to want to shatter records with Harper, not beat them by $1 million or $2 million. It seems like a foregone conclusion Harper will be the first $40 million a year player in history, but you can bet Boras has his eye on $45 million or even $50 million. That doesn't mean he'll get it, of course, but he likes to shoot big.
Right now most are talking about a potential $400 million contract for Harper and I think that will end up being way light when the time comes. As outsiders, our perception of market seems to be a year or two behind what teams have the wherewithal to spend and are willing to spend. That's why there are so many shocking contracts each offseason. They're shocking to us, but not the teams.
Boras is known for huge first asks and he might open Harper's free agency by saying he wants a 15-year-old contract worth $600 million. It sounds insane now, but in three years it might not be so unrealistic. And remember, that's just a first ask. Boras starts there and negotiates down.
Harper is currently three seasons away from free agency -- Trout is five years away because of the extension he signed in 2014, in case you're wondering -- and because he's such a great and polarizing player, we're already talking about what he might get and what teams may sign him. His free agency is very highly anticipated.
At this very moment, with three years between now and then, we have to be aware that a lot can and likely will change before Harper hits the open market. That includes his skills as a player and the financial state of the game, and that could all change for better or worse. Harper's free agency figures to be historic, and it is not a story that will go away any time soon.