We all know the details of it now: the Philadelphia Phillies signed Bryce Harper to a 13-year, $330 million deal. It’s the biggest contract in terms of total value in U.S. sports history. It’ll be mentioned in the lede paragraph of, like, 95% of stories about Bryce Harper from now until the day he dies.
How did it come together? For that you should go read this article from Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci which, with a gigantic assist from a talkative Scott Boras, explains how Harper’s offseason went from the moment the Nationals lowballed him with a take-it-or-leave it offer last fall until late yesterday morning when Harper and his wife told Boras to accept the Phillies offer and close the deal.
The thing about it, though, is . . . there really was not enough drama in this saga to justify a full-blown political-style tick-tock story like Verducci gives us here. The Phillies were the only team on the scene for months, Boras managed to stir some activity from the Giants and Dodgers at the 11th hour and squeezed a bit more out of Philly. Done. There’s more drama in most big deals. The net effect of it all is that the story, in my opinion anyway, is a fluff piece that, intentionally or not, serves to make Scott Boras look good and not much more.
Still, it’s fun! You should read the whole thing, because it’s chock full of amazing little bits — mostly bits that I do not think Verducci quite realizes are as amazing as they truly are — which make me wonder if anyone but Boras and maybe Harper are gonna come away happy with it.
Let’s go old school call-and-response with this bad boy because, wow:
Boras tells Verducci that when Harper, Phillies owner John Middleton and their wives all had dinner together, they hit it off fabulously:
“I may have said five minutes worth of words the entire time,” Boras said. “John and Leigh, Bryce and Kayla, they just talked.”
I refuse to believe that Boras has been the wallflower in any meeting in the past 30 years, but OK, Scott.
When the Phillies began their courtship of Harper back in December, they kicked it off with a slickly-produced video in which the club found as many prominent Philadelphians as possible—athletes, politicians, restaurateurs, coaches, business owners, etc.—and had them speak directly to Harper to join them in the city.
We hear about these pitch videos from time to time, but I’ve never seen one. I would kill to see one of these. Especially for an unsuccessful pitch. Like, one the Yankees did to get Greg Maddux in 1993 or whatever. I’m guessing there are a lot of low-key embarrassed local celebrities on these things.
Next Verducci talks about what happened after last weekend’s well-reported Vegas trip made by Middleton:
On Sunday, with the exhaust from Middleton’s jet barely dissipated, a contingent from the Dodgers flew into McCarran Airport in Las Vegas to offer Harper a record amount of money per year, but only on a deal covering four or five years . . . On Tuesday, right behind their divisional rival, the Giants jetted in with a 12-year offer worth around $310 million. All the stagecraft had the desired effect.
If you’re the Dodgers or Giants you must LOVE being portrayed as props, theatrically manipulated by Boras, in order to get the Phillies to up their offer. I’m sure this will in no way reduce their eagerness to talk to Verducci in the future.
For that matter, I can’t imagine the Phillies are too pleased at being called suckers themselves:
But in Middleton and the Phillies, Boras found a receptive and eager audience . . . When Middleton opened the free agent season by declaring his team not only had money to spend but also “maybe even be a little bit stupid about it,” Boras had his mark. The agent has excelled in getting owners to make emotional buys, but that tact has withered in recent years as whip-smart general managers wrested buying control with their cold, analytics-based decision making.
“Everyone else is logical and analytical, but John Middleton was an emotional and eager mark” is a hell of a thing to say in print when you’re an access journalist, but I give Verducci credit for boldness.
Verducci then talks about the details of Harper’s contract with the Phillies. I know I talked a lot about this yesterday, but allow me to say again how much of a bargain this deal really is for Philly.
By average annual value, Harper is only the 11th highest paid player in baseball right now. He’s behind Jon Lester and Yoenis Cespedes for cryin’ out loud. Roger Clemens, who hasn’t played in 12 years, had a year making more than Harper will ever make. A-Rod had two different contracts with higher AAV, as has Clayton Kershaw. They are all different situations obviously, and $330 million is a much, much more substantial total commitment than anyone else has gotten, but people tend to talk about budgets and payroll on a year-by-year basis, and on that score Harper’s deal is relatively painless for Philly. I bet that, theoretically, a non-zero number of teams would take on that contract right now if enticed to do so in a trade.
Verducci talks about another key benefit of that low average annual value:
That AAV still leaves room for the Phillies to bid on Mike Trout if Trout becomes a free agent after the 2020 season. A club source said before this offseason began that the club had enough money to sign both Machado and Harper, but wanted just one of them in order to keep money in reserve for Trout.
That should keep Phillies’ fans expectations realistic going forward. Someone should ask Yankees and Braves fans how they feel about expectations, based on either explicit or implicit front office sentiments, that the team will spend big in a couple of years, especially on specific guys.
I mentioned the Nationals lowballing Harper last fall. Some numbers on that:
It was reported to be $300 million over 10 years, but included so much deferred money over such a long period—Harper would be 60 years old when the last payments were made—that the net present value was $184 million. The Harper camp saw the offer as little more than a publicity gesture to appease fans . . . The $330 million over 13 years works out to a net present value of about $241 million. That’s still about 31% greater than what the Nationals offered at the end of last season.
Despite all of this I am sure I will still get Nats fans hitting me up with “Harper was greedy and turned down $300 million from the Nats!” noise for the next several years. Reading is fundamental, kids.
As for the Nats, Mike Rizzo has something to say:
The source said Washington GM Mike Rizzo accepted some of the blame for how quickly it fell apart between Harper and the only organization he had known, recognizing that the team had a history of catering to Harper without challenging him.
Call me crazy, but I do not feel like transparently casting Harper as a fragile prima donna who was not motivated and is not a self-starter and, “dang it, we just didn’t coddle enough for his satisfaction!” is “accepting blame.” I feel like every player in the league would take Rizzo’s characterization here as an insult, not as the GM taking any kind of responsibility. Unless I’m missing players who say things like “yeah, I was catered to and they didn’t challenge me. It was a bad scene, man.”
Any other teams in on Harper?
Frankly, some teams, such as the Braves, just didn’t see Harper as worth a record contract. “Harper is great friends with Freddie Freeman and would have loved Atlanta,” said one club source, “but [we] just didn’t value him that high.”
In the Braves’ defense, they have a very different value system than other teams. Perhaps if Harper were an office building or an outparcel upon which they could develop some high-yield retail properties they’d have made a bid, but he’s just a baseball player and baseball players are only a small part of the Atlanta Braves well-diversified portfolio.
Any other teams interested?
Some worried about how his violent swing would hold up.
“He’s Tiger Woods with that swing,” said one GM. “I’d take him for a few years, but it’s hard to see how that body is going to hold up when you swing like that. You saw how Tiger’s body broke down.”
I hope I’m not the only one who remembers that Tiger Woods’ breakdown was a function of a series of personal, emotional and psychological calamities culminating in his developing an obsession for Navy SEAL LARPing that wrecked his body and, probably, his brain. Maybe I am. GMs are busy guys and might not read crazy deep-dives like that one. My God, if you haven’t read it, go read it. It’s insane.
Earlier I said this was a Boras-fluffing piece. Here’s the fluffiest part:
Boras had to fight the perception that Harper was injury-prone. He met with several teams in December about Harper, and when one executive from one of those teams expressed concern that Harper was not durable, Boras was ready.
“Explain something to me,” the agent said. “Do you think Mike Trout is durable?”
“Oh, sure. Yes,” the executive said.
“Over the last four years, do you know how many plate appearances each of them has?”
“Trout has 2,478. Bryce has 2,468. They’re within 10 plate appearances over the past four years.”
I would bet my children that this conversation never actually happened. Because he is famously well-prepared, I am certain Boras had that fact at the ready. I am certain that, at some point he offered it in passing while talking to someone, but there is no way on Earth it came out like this. It reads like Socrates querying Plato. It’s written like a movie scene in which the fish-out-of-water substitute teacher shows up in the rough inner-city classroom, turns the chair around backwards and drops truth-bombs on his skeptical students, after which a new respect has been earned. It’s cinematic. It’s patently ridiculous. It’s a war story Boras tells people at Newport Beach bistros to impress them. That Verducci transcribed it here is hilarious.
Some more Boras philosophy:
This time, Boras could sell both numbers and also star power.
“The reality is the greatest and most successful aspect of Hollywood are the stars,” Boras said. “George Clooney, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper … whatever movie they are in is about them. People identify with the greatest of great people. In sports you think about Michael Jordan and Tom Brady. When you think about the people who are the billboards of teams it creates what we expect in sports. People want to watch greatness and they want to watch the greatness of individuals. What is best for baseball is what the fans tell us: when you have the greatest, most iconic players, the fans will come.”
I get that Boras’ bread-and-butter is representing superstars, but if you’re someone like Martin Maldonado — also a Scott Boras client but currently unemployed — and you’re reading this, I wonder how you feel. How’s he pitching you? Boras has made a lot of money for a lot of big stars, but I’m guessing that a lot of agents can attribute their business to players worried that they’re not his first, second or tenth priority in a given offseason.
Back to Philly:
Phillies manager Gabe Kapler, who attended the first meeting, is a fitness fanatic who engaged Harper in discussions about training, nutrition and fitness. Two sources familiar with the meeting, however, said that Harper was turned off by Kapler’s intensity. Boras disputed that notion, saying, “They talked, they hit it off. They were two peas in a pod.”
What’s the over/under on the number of years Kapler remains manager of the Phillies? Before you say that, allow me to take the under.
And that’s that. It was a fun read but, as I said, it was fun mostly for reasons that I don’t think Boras and Verducci intended. Next up is the press conference and then, I presume, we can get down to baseball.