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The Nationals’ “$300 million offer” to Bryce Harper was not as good as you think

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All offseason, whenever the matter of the free agent market has arisen, readers have swooped into my mentions and comments to tell me that everything is fine and that it’s actually the players who are unreasonable. The evidence cited: “Bryce Harper turned down a $300 million offer from the Nationals!” If I’ve heard that once I’ve heard it six hundred times.

Well, turns out that there was a catch: a full one-third of that was deferred money, reducing the deal considerably in terms of present value. From MLB.com:

Sources told MLB.com on Wednesday that the Nationals have no plans to give Harper a mega-deal comparable to Machado’s 10-year, $300 million contract with the Padres, likely ending any chance for Washington’s longtime face of the franchise to remain with the club. The Nationals offered Harper a contract worth $300 million over 10 years before the end of the 2018 regular season. Harper and his agent Scott Boras rejected the deal.

Two sources said that roughly $100 million of that offer would have been deferred money, lowering the present-day value of the contract.

As Craig Edwards of Fangraphs tweeted a bit ago, a ten year, $300 million deal that pays $20 million a year for ten years then $10 million a year, deferred, after that has the same present value as a straight 10-year deal for $244 million. There are other ways to structure that — shorter deferral periods or longer, Bobby Bonilla-style periods — but no matter how you slice it, deferring one-third of a $300 million deal is a big financial hit for the player compared to the stated and widely-reported “$300 million offer.”

To be petty: when that “$300 million offer” was reported last November, I said this:

The offer was reportedly for roughly $300 million over a ten-year span. How much of that was deferred, backloaded or what have you is unknown . . . As with all reports like these, it’s worth appreciating that someone may have an incentive to put this out there. In this case, I suspect, the Nationals, to signal to fans that they made an effort to lock Harper up before he was able to negotiate with teams other than Washington. Doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, but just how specifically good or bad the deal was is not something we can know.

Well, now we know.

Anyway, as the MLB.com story notes, Harper was not taking that kind of deal from the Nationals and the Nats aren’t sweetening it, so the chances of him going back to Washington are, apparently, nil.

The takeaway: be wary of reported offers. Both when they favor the team’s interest and when they favor the player’s interest. Every single on of those reports, however interesting, and however often they may be correct, have an agenda behind them.

Mariners agree to a six-year contract with prospect Evan White

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This is a rare one: the Mariners have signed first base prospect Evan White — a player who has yet to play a game above Double-A — to a six-year, $24 million contract. The deal has three club options as well that, if exercised, could make it max out at $55.5 million over nine years.

White was the M’s first round pick in the 2017 draft, going 17th overall out of the University of Kentucky. In 2019 he played at Double-A Arkansas in the Texas League, hitting .293/.350/.488 with 18 home runs, striking out 92 times and walking 29 times in 92 games. It’s a good line in a league that is pretty pitcher-friendly. Stuart also reportedly plays excellent defense at first base.

Clearly the Mariners consider White a part of their future, but unless White flames out early in his career, he’s leaving a lot of potential money on the table.

White turns 24 early next season, which means that, even if he begins the 2020 season in the majors, starting his major league service time clock on Opening Day, he wouldn’t reach free agency until he’s poised to begin his age-33 season, assuming the Mariners exercise those options. If the Mariners place him in Triple A for anything beyond a couple of weeks to start next season, that changes to his age-34 season. A full year of Triple-A action and even some modest service time manipulation by the M’s in 2021 would put it off even longer.

At the same time, a team is unlikely to want to pay a guy millions to toil in the minors — and the M’s are guaranteeing themselves as many as nine years of White’s services — so the threat of service time manipulation is greatly reduced. Which means that, if he hits, he plays. Of course, if he hits well and continues to do so, the Mariners will have a considerable bargain on their hands, with a potential franchise cornerstone locked up at an average of $6 million and change a year for nearly a decade.

As we’ve noted so often when discussing extensions with young players, that’s the tradeoff. After today, White could hit like Mario Mendoza, field like Dick Stuart and be drummed out of baseball before he’s 30 and, assuming he’s even moderately sensible, still have enough money to set himself up for life. If he turns into a real star he’ll make less than half of what he’s worth in his career. His alternative: wait at least four years and maybe five to reach arbitration and three more after that until he can be a free agent. Assuming arbitration and free agency exist after the current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires in 2021.

So, let’s check back in a few years before passing ultimate judgment.