Bryce Harper built the box he is currently trapped in.
Year three of a 13-year contract is coming in 2021. Mathematically, it’s just the start, which is both troubling and hopeful. Philadelphia is suddenly an undulating organization without direction. And Harper can’t be traded because of the length of his deal -- a term crucial to him when entering free agency in 2019. But, he also can’t leave of his own volition because he made a point of not including opt-outs in a decade-plus contract. He’s stuck.
Much of Harper’s initial point when signing the deal was to avoid a second go-around with free agency despite his age. It’s counter to logic and, likely, to what his agent, Scott Boras, would prefer. Harper didn’t leave himself any of the flexibility Stephen Strasburg’s 2016 contract extension allowed for or even the limited mechanisms in Giancarlo Stanton’s 13-year, $325 million deal. Stanton can opt-out this offseason -- six years into his deal -- should he choose to (he won’t). He is still owed $218 million over the next seven years and the current free agency market is bad. Stanton is going nowhere.
However, he at least was able to consider it. This is the ultimate era of athlete movement, whether for a year or two, to form super groups in the NBA or instant offense in the NFL. Baseball remains a laggard when it comes to such jarring player movement.
Strasburg may be the premier example of how to massage MLB’s pay scale. He leveraged the threat of free agency into a seven-year, $175 million, opt-out-laden extension in 2016. Strasburg turned that into his current seven-year, $245 million deal after taking the first opt-out available to him following the 2019 World Series win.
Strasburg managed all of that with Boras at the helm. Harper chose differently. After being low-balled by the Nationals -- and being forced to move on despite wanting to return -- he was adamant about finding a permanent home. Reports suggested the Dodgers were willing to provide him a shorter contract with a higher average annual value. Imagine that framework now: Harper signs for the four years, $45 million the Dodgers reportedly offered. He wins the World Series in 2020, his second season, is stable in years three and four while the sport convulses through rough offseasons and a new collective bargaining agreement is hammered out. Then he hits the market again at age 29 with everything behind him.
That is not where Harper currently lives. He is looking at team owner John Middleton jumping in to refute reports Zack Wheeler may be traded after one season with the Phillies. Philadelphia has missed the postseason in each of Harper’s first two seasons. And the rock of salt in the wound was the Nationals winning the World Series the season after he left.
The National League East will be highly competitive again next season. Atlanta may be the second-best team in baseball. The Mets have a new owner looking to spend. The Nationals should reboot. The Marlins are more and more interesting thanks to their young talent. Which leaves the Phillies, and Harper, feeling pinched. At least the upside of a forever contract is opportunity for course correction. They have a decade to go -- for better or worse.