Selling Bryce Harper Is No Easy Task for Super Agent Scott Boras

Teams are using analytics to inform their free-agent decisions. No longer to emotions steer these multimillion dollar deals. That makes cutting a deal for Bryce Harper more difficult than ever.
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LAS VEGAS — Let it be recorded that when Scott Boras made his annual winter meetings performance art Wednesday, this time to argue that Bryce Harper is such a great investment he “will pay for himself”, he stood not on a soap box but an equipment box for a Washington television station. It was an unintended master stroke for the Maestro of Metaphor.

Boras brought to the media the argument he is trying to pitch to owners: that Harper is the rare ballplayer who not only puts up numbers, but also sells tickets, brings in viewers and enhances franchise value. Boras ascribed to Harper leaps made by the Washington Nationals in his years there in attendance (an increase of 600,000 from the season before Harper arrived to this season), viewership (from 25,000 households to 77,000 households, he said) and franchise value ($480 million to $2 billion, he said, though the current estimate is closer to $1.7 billion).

“He will pay for himself, independent of a great performance,” Boras said.

It’s a stretch, of course, but this is the agent for Harper speaking. And Harper is the rare ballplayer who actually does have a halo effect on a franchise. He is the most recognizable player in the sport, and that counts for something in an entertainment business that relies on generating interest and attention.

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When I asked Boras, who has represented ballplayers for 36 years, if he could remember using such off-the-field data points to support a player’s value, he said, “I don’t think any player ever has had such close connection with franchise value, attendance and TV ratings.”

The Harper market is slow for such a rare free agent: age 26 on a Hall of Fame track whose profile cuts through the clutter and competition of a multi-platform entertainment world. In other times of free agency, teams would have wined, dined and signed Harper by now. Alex Rodriguez in 2000 was signed by Texas before this date. It was only four years ago that the Giants sent Bruce Bochy and Buster Posey to knock on the door of Jon Lester’s home in Georgia to try to get him signed. But the people running baseball now, especially the analytically-minded general managers who have won over the confidence of ownership, have taken the emotion out of the buying business. And they regard free agency as an ineffective market.

Harper to them is another commodity, another WAR number, and the money that would go toward his $35 million-plus annual salary can be sliced in many ways, depending on roster construction and the metrics. The Yankees, good gracious, the team that invented emotional buying and recruiting pitches–Reggie Jackson said of George Steinbrenner in 1976, “It was like trying to hustle a girl in a bar”–declared themselves out of a player who otherwise is perfect for them, with Harper being lefthanded, telegenic and so enamored with club history that he grew up with a poster of The Mick over his bed and said at age 16 his dream was “to wear the pinstripes.” They already have, as GM Brian Cashman pointed out, outfielders such Brett Gardner … and Jacoby Ellsbury, a relic from the old free agent era.

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Boras, of course, tried to say the Yankees and Nationals are still in it for Harper, reminding everyone how the Yankees weren’t in it for Mark Teixeira until they actually signed him.

“When the nurse walks in the room with a thermometer, the issue is not what the thermometer says that day,” Boras said. “The issue is, what’s the health of the patient when they’re ready to leave the hospital? And they are not ready to leave the hospital yet.”

Watching the Sultan of Simile stand there on the equipment box and sell, I got the sense that Boras wasn’t so much arguing for his client as he was trying to hold his balance in the strong undertow that is taking over baseball. One of his strong suits already is gone–the number-crunching he would do to sell his clients to teams. Every team has their own deep pool of analytics.

Now the “emotional buy” from the men who own teams is lost, and worse, as Boras himself pointed out, the Collective Bargaining Agreement, signed only two years ago, isn’t working well for the players. Boras sees too may teams not trying to win, and a luxury tax system that has become the equivalent of a soft cap.

“It’s become an accepted dynamic to say, ‘I’m not going to be competitive for one or two seasons,’” he said.

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To sell his players Boras needs more teams trying to win, and to do that Boras wants baseball to expand the playoffs–three wild-card teams in each league instead of two, making for “seven playoff levels.” His idea would allow teams barely above .500, or worse, to push for a postseason berth and create an “October Madness” of supposed playoff excitement. Watering down the playoffs and dragging them out further and rewarding mediocrity is a bad idea, but these are the things you think about when you see seven teams lose 95 or more games, as happened this year.

I don’t doubt Harper will wind up with the richest contract in baseball history, though it may be with the Phillies or White Sox, two teams that haven’t fielded a winning team in half a dozen years. There is little to no buzz from the Yankees, Nationals, Dodgers, Giants and Cubs. When I asked Boras if a team could get him signed for three or four years with a high average annual value, he practically dismissed it and focused on Harper wanting a long-term relationship with ownership that wants to win.

He said he has given “two or three thousand pages” of information about clubs to Harper, who not only has devoured it but also has “shocked” teams they’ve met with by showing such a deep “understanding of the business of baseball.”

Boras has been here many times. The Maestro of Metaphor puts on an impressive show every winter meetings. This one was different though. Selling Bryce Harper shouldn’t have to be this hard.