Bryce Harper actually left a lot on the table

Brian Tinsman
March 01, 2019 - 12:11 am

On Thursday, Bryce Harper broke the record for the largest salary in American sports history, something that insiders believe was his goal all along.

BREAKING: Harper Gets Mega-Deal With Phillies

It's crazy to think that he could have gotten better terms, but with contracts like this, there can be a lot of devil in the details.

Here are four reasons why Harper and agent Scott Boras could actually live to regret this deal:

1. No opt-out: The full details of the deal will come to light over time, but we know a few notable clauses already: the no-trade protection and opt-out clause. Harper has the right to block a trade to any team, which is not uncommon in marquee deals. Even with it, a player can waive his rights, as players like Alex Rodriguez, Giancarlo Stanton, Robinson Cano and others have done. But Harper has no opt-out clause, which has become standard in almost every mega-deal.

The clause gives the player a chance to either re-test the market for a better deal, or to pursue other options if a sweet deal turns sour. More on both of those options below.

2. He's stuck in Philly: Say what you want about the differences between Baltimore and D.C., but the two cities' baseball fans have a lot in common. Manny Machado and Bryce Harper both became superstars playing in front of adoring, forgiving fans. The media treated them with kid gloves and fans were loyal to the homegrown talent.

Last year, Machado was traded before the deadline and got a taste of what it was like to play in Los Angeles. He played well but was dragged in the media and got a mixed reception from fans. He didn't like that, and returned to a low-pressure situation in San Diego (for $300 million).

Philadelphia is neither San Diego nor Washington. Philly fans are not just notoriously abusive, but have actually become caricatures of their own reputation. Watch an Eagles fan beam with pride as he talks about the jail inside the stadium. The nightmarish hockey mascot is named Gritty. Harper will be the toast of the town until the first time he strikes out in front of the home crowd at Citizen Bank Park--then watch out.

Can Harper handle the heat that comes from the Philly Phaithful? Can he still perform when the contract he wanted is thrown back in his face? Last year, he slumped for months before the All-Star break and got immunity from the D.C. fans and media. With the biggest contract ever, he'll be under the microscope. Or perhaps burned like an ant under a microscope.

ALSO READ: Bryce Harper was Always Going to the Highest Bidder

3. He might not have the record for long: Boras told MLB insider Joel Sherman that contract length was key, but let's be serious: this contract was designed to top Giancarlo Stanton's $325 million deal. As soon as 2021, Harper's contract will likely get surpassed by Mike Trout, who is already making more than $34 million per year.

Trout will hit free agency before his age 29 season and has more hardware to show in his young career. Trout has been largely consistent, leading all of baseball in OPS+ for each of the last four years. The only reason Harper seems like a bigger star is because of proximity bias. If Trout can land a deal on the East Coast, his star could outshine Harper, even if all goes well in Philly.

Either way, Trout is the next player with a chance to capture the title of largest American sports contract.

4. Others will pass his annual average: As it stands today, Harper has the 13th-highest average annual salary in baseball, at just under $25.4 million. That puts him nearly $5 million per year behind Machado and $9 million per year behind Trout. He will probably never be higher on the list than he is today, even as the league grapples with a looming labor dispute. 

The real question is how this deal will hold up over time. The average MLB salary nearly doubled in the 13 years between 2005 ($2.48 million) and 2018 ($4.52), albeit at a much lower rate than Harper's salary. Players and owners will return to the collective bargaining table in 2021, with player salaries likely to be a point of contention.

If players succeed in getting a higher percentage of overall profits, then $25 million contracts could become common (think of the NBA). Harper has no leverage to re-negotiate, with no opt-out clause and the full prime of his career under contract.

By taking the largest total deal, Harper turned down the largest average annual value, which was $45 million per year from the Dodgers:

That's half again as much money as Machado is making, and he could have cashed in again in free agency after three years.

Again, it's hard to question the logic behind signing the largest contract in American sports history. But Harper and Boras made some curious concessions in search of the last dollar. 

Now, they can cry all the way to the bank.

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