Bryce Harper, who just won his second MVP award this week, sees a “crazy” winter of baseball business with labor talks complicating free agency — but also predicts a good outcome for Las Vegas buddy Kris Bryant, the former Cubs MVP who steps into the roiling waters of this winter’s market just a few months after getting traded to the Giants.
If anybody should know about crazy free agent markets, issues surrounding the collective bargaining agreement and Bryant’s likely path, it’s probably Harper, an active member of the players union, who didn’t sign his own record free agent contract until spring training had begun that year and who shares an agent with Bryant.
That agent is Scott Boras, who has negotiated six of the seven biggest free agent contracts in total value in baseball history (and the top three in average annual value).
“Free agency’s always tough,” Harper said during a conversation this summer with NBC Sports Chicago. “Going in you never know where you’re going to sign or what teams are going to be in. Some teams you think are going to be in aren’t going to be in.
“The thing with Scott when I was going through it is he told me, ‘Hey, you might not sign till March 1, somewhere in there.’ “ he added, “so me and my wife were just like, ‘OK, we’ll just go through it like we’re getting ready for spring training by March 1.’
“We weren’t really worried about anything else. we were just going to go along with the process and let the chips fall where they may.”
He signed with the Phillies on March 2, 2019.
“So not too bad,” he said.
Also not too bad: 13 years, $330 million.
Bryant, the fourth-ranked free agent on the market, according to mlbtraderumors.com, won’t command nearly that much, if for no other reason than he’s four years older than Harper was entering free agency.
But Harper’s experience is instructive not only for how Bryant’s market — at least in terms of timing and strategy — might play out, but also for the events that have led to the industry’s stormiest labor negotiations since the 1994-95 stoppage as baseball faces an all-but-assured lockout by owners on Dec. 2.
Harper, who joined Manny Machado, also 26 at the time, at the top of their free agent class, represented one of the biggest reasons teams used publicly to explain the previous winter’s slowest-moving free agent market since teams engaged in collusion in the 1980s: Teams were “keeping their powder dry” for the big fish in the Harper-Machado class.
In fact, the markets moves just as slowly that following year. Machado (10 years, $300 million) and Harper got their market-setting contracts, but not until February for Machado and even later for Harper.
The effects of the 2017-21 CBA — which included tiny increases in the luxury-tax thresholds relative to revenues and recent salary trends — began to awaken the union’s rank and file to salary-suppression issues that have decreased the average salary in baseball (pre-pandemic) at a time of record industry revenue (also pre-pandemic).
Harper shrugged off a question about what it might be like for him to go through free agency this winter compared to when he did. But the top free agents in recent years haven’t seen the impact as much as the “middle-class” of established, 30-something veterans, who have been squeezed the most.
Maybe that’s why he sounded as optimistic as he did over Bryant’s prospects of getting top value, even though a lockout comes with a transaction freeze until a labor agreement is reached.
Harper said he hadn’t talked directly on that subject in conversations with Bryant, who has braced — if not prepared for this moment — for years.
“Him and Jess, they have a great head on their shoulders, and they’re great people, and they have a great family,” Harper said of Bryant and his wife, Jessica. “So I think they have all the communication they need. They’ve got Scott Boras, of course. He’s an incredible agent, just to be able to throw things up at him. He’s seen it all.
“Kris is going to be OK, anywhere he goes or anything that he does.”
Whether that’s in Seattle, New York or somewhere less expected, that’s assuming the owners and union get a deal done in time for one of those big, late signings to happen.
Harper said he was optimistic there will be no games lost in 2022, a sentiment expressed by insiders on both sides of the table who seem to be preparing for an on-time start to spring training.
“I hope the guys that go through [this free agent market] are able to get things that they want to have from each team that they talk to,” Harper said. “As long as guys can try to keep level-headed and understand that it might take a while, but they’ll get to where they need to. …
“The CBA is a totally different discussion,” he added. “That’s going to be crazy for both sides of the game. But as players we want to be able to get on the field as quick as possible, and I think as ownership they want to to get on the field as quick as possible as well.”