- The day finally came. Bryce Harper chose Philadelphia as the city to likely spend the rest of his career. So why does it feel so underwhelming?
It took four months and hundreds of rumors from sources as varied as MLB’s most plugged-in reporters all the way to the band Smash Mouth, but finally—finally—as February ticked into March, the Bryce Harper Sweepstakes came to a predictable end on Thursday afternoon.
Per virtually every national baseball reporter in the country, Harper’s next team—and, in all likelihood, his last—will be the Philadelphia Phillies, who were among the favorites at the beginning and have now locked in the former NL MVP with a jaw-dropping contract: 13 years, $330 million, no opt-outs and a no-trade clause. It’s the biggest contract, in terms of total value, ever handed out in both MLB and North American professional sports history, topping ex-Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton’s $325 million pact signed back in 2015. Fittingly, it’s handed out by the team whose owner publicly committed to spending “stupid money” in a bid to turn the Phillies into World Series contenders.
Consider that promise fulfilled, even if the road to get to this point was needlessly long and oddly bumpy. Like Manny Machado, who landed $300 million from the Padres just over a week ago, Harper lingered in free agency despite being the kind of player you would happily hand a small fortune. At 26 years old, he’s the foundation for contention both today and tomorrow and is already on a Hall of Fame track. Consider that he compiled more career WAR through his age-25 season than, among others, Robin Yount, Derek Jeter, Adrian Beltre, Frank Thomas, Reggie Jackson and Miguel Cabrera. Harper’s 184 career home runs in that same span, meanwhile, are more than Stanton, Hank Aaron, Joe DiMaggio and Willie Mays had by the time they turned 26.
There are holes you can poke in Harper’s case. His defense is occasionally messy for reasons no one can easily explain. Injuries have stalled out potential MVP seasons. His consistency hasn’t been there: Harper’s single-season bWAR figures over the last four years are 10.0, 1.5, 4.7, and 1.3. Some of that may be due to some wonky defensive stats, but he hasn’t steadily produced since winning the MVP in 2015, a year he hit 42 homers, slashed .330/.460/.649, and led the majors in on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS+ (198).
Last year, meanwhile, was a perfect encapsulation of Harper’s young career, both brilliant and frustrating: He led MLB in walks with 130 and homered 34 times, but he also set a career high in strikeouts with 169 and hit just .249 while grounding into roughly a billion overloaded infield shifts on the right side.
While you can pick apart Harper’s game at the molecular level, there remains the reality that he is Bryce Harper: former No. 1 pick, NL MVP, and inarguably one of the most talented players ever to set foot on a major league field. He is a true game-changer, and that’s what’s made this offseason of open denials and listless offers so galling and weird. Front offices have probably long fantasized about the moment Harper became available for nothing more than money, and yet when the time came, they all glued their wallets shut. That true contenders like the Dodgers, Yankees and Cubs more or less sat this chase out—only Los Angeles remained in it until the end, and even then, the team angled for a shorter deal—is a damning reflection on how the bottom line, and not wins, currently rules the day in MLB.
But as with Machado ending up in San Diego, that odd frugality ended up working out for the team that landed Harper in the end. This is an easy win for the Phillies, who spent all winter beefing up a roster that made a run for the NL East crown last summer before falling apart in September en route to 80 wins and a third-place finish. “We’re going into this expecting to spend money,” principal owner John Middleton said as the offseason began, but while Philadelphia did indeed get busy by extending ace Aaron Nola and landing All-Stars Jean Segura, J.T. Realmuto, and Andrew McCutchen, the huge move remained frustratingly out of reach. Worse, it looked as if the Phillies’ promise to be dumb with their cash was nothing more than a slogan: When the team missed out on Machado, the message put forth by general manager Matt Klentak was that of fiscal restraint. “This contract will exceed our valuation,” he told reporters, adding, “Sometimes you have to walk away.”
It was a bloodless response for a process that had promised to be frenzied, and it seemingly made the Phillies an unlikely landing spot for Harper, who was sure to command more money than Machado. Nor did it help to see constant reports that Harper wasn’t eager to go to Philadelphia, prompting a wave of fury from prematurely scorned Phillies fans and talk radio yakkers across eastern Pennsylvania. As of just this morning, the Washington Post rounded up a collection of their hatred for the man whose jersey they’ll now presumably buy by the dozens.
But in the end, this was a union that made too much sense to remain unconsummated. A return to Washington looked out of the question since Harper and Boras rejected a 10-year, $300 million offer to stay—the only reported one we knew of before today, and one that looks far worse in retrospect, per the Washington Post’s Barry Svrluga, as it was loaded with deferrals worth up to $100 million that would’ve paid out over the next three decades. The Padres, Giants and White Sox were also in the mix, but San Diego took itself out of the running by choosing Machado, and Chicago’s interest was apparently predicated on him settling for a wildly below-market contract. As for San Francisco, adding Harper would have made a ton of sense, yet the Giants are already up to their eyeballs in big contracts, and the franchise appears to be on more of a rebuilding path than one that has room for Harper.
As such, while Harper received his long-term deal and it comes at terms still favorable to the Phillies, who seemed to be the only serious bidder. While $330 million is a ton of money, it comes amortized over 13 years. That average annual value of $25.38 million is less than what Jon Lester and Yoenis Cespedes are making, and about as much as Ryan Howard got from the Phillies seven years ago or Alex Rodriguez received from the Rangers in 2001 (and that’s not accounting for inflation). All of that is to help Philadelphia stay under the luxury tax threshold—not that the team was in any real danger of broaching it, much less approaching it. Even with Harper in tow, the Phillies’ payroll barely crests $150 million, or roughly $50–55 million away from tax territory. There’s room for it to grow, and the promise of what the Phillies can become apparently played a part in Harper’s commitment to the franchise. Per The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal, he never asked for an opt-out, and as Boras told the New York Post’s Joel Sherman, Harper turned down shorter deals worth far more per year to join Philadelphia (and also get to play in hitter-friendly Citizens Bank Park).
Regardless of where the Phillies go from here, the offseason-long saga is over. Harper signed, though it remains bizarre how messy and dull it all felt. Players like him seldom reach free agency, and when they do, you expect to see fireworks every day—a will-he, won’t-he drama playing out with multiple teams, all of whom are trying their best to wine and dine him.
I don’t know if you can ever truly call the hot stove season fun, but if nothing else, it’s usually full of intrigue and excitement. Instead, what we saw was a protracted game of chicken that left fans and players alike confused over why Harper received such lukewarm interest. The Phillies won, and to them go the spoils. But it can’t help but feel like it never should have taken this long—or felt so grim—for one of baseball’s best to find a new home.