Update: The Angels have contacted Major League Baseball regarding Harper’s comments, Maria Torres of the Los Angeles Times reports.
Bryce Harper‘s 13-year, $330 million contract with the Phillies, agreed to last week, was surprising not just for the years and money involved, but because the deal has zero opt-out clauses. Opt-outs have become quite popular for the game’s elite free agents, giving them the opportunity to head back into free agency for more money if they happen to stay healthy and productive on the front end of their deal. Harper didn’t pursue opt-out clauses, he said, because he wanted to be better able to recruit players to play for the Phillies. If he could potentially opt out and leave for another team, players might balk at making a commitment to the Phillies.
Harper hasn’t even played his first spring training game in a Phillies uniform and he’s already recruiting. On 94 WIP Tuesday afternoon, Harper said, “If you don’t think I’m gonna call Mike Trout to come to Philly in 2020, you’re crazy. The full quote:
I think that’s one thing about this contract that I’m able to do. Having 13 years in a place, I’m able to help recruit guys to this organization. Ownership understands it, our manager is awesome, and I can really put that faith in myself. Being able to say, hey, we’re going to go about it the right way. We’re the Philadelphia Phillies and we want whoever wants to come to Philly. And if you don’t want to come to Philly, then don’t come. Don’t be part of it. But if you want to come and be part of a winning team and a winning culture, then we’re going to need the best players to do that. I think it’s respecting Mike Trout in a certain way during the season, letting him play and do the things he needs to do to, of course, be Mike Trout. But if you don’t think I’m not going to call Mike Trout in 2020 to have him come to Philly, you’re crazy.
Mike Trout was born in Vineland and attended school in Millville, both located in southern New Jersey, about an hour drive away from Philadelphia. He grew up a Phillies fan, even attending the club’s World Series parade in 2008. The city of Philadelphia has long been dreaming of a Trout homecoming, well before Harper’s free agency became a hot topic. Trout signed a six-year, $144.5 million contract extension with the Angels in March 2014, delaying his free agency until after the 2020 season.
Harper’s quote presents two problems: one relatively minor and one that might be considered big. Let’s start with the minor issue: Harper might fired his shot too early. There are still two seasons to be played before Trout hits free agency. Harper openly saying he’s going to try and recruit Trout to the Phillies might incentivize the Angels to work quicker and harder on another extension. It also gives the other 28 teams notice to do their homework to try and lure a first-ballot Hall of Famer away from the Angels.
The more serious issue is that what Harper said could be seen by Major League Baseball as tampering. Here’s what MLB’s rulebook says about tampering:
TAMPERING. To preserve discipline and competition, and to prevent the enticement of players, coaches, managers and umpires, there shall be no negotiations or dealings respecting employment, either present or prospective, between any player, coach or manager and any Major or Minor League Club other than the Club with which the player is under contract, or acceptance of terms, or by which the player is reserved or which has the player on its Negotiation List, or between any umpire and any baseball employer other than the baseball employer with which the umpire is under contract, or acceptance of terms, unless the Club or baseball employer with which the person is connected shall have, in writing, expressly authorized such negotiations or dealings prior to their commencement.
The last time MLB had a tampering issue was around this time last year. Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge said then-Orioles shortstop Manny Machado would “look good in pinstripes.” Sheryl Ring did a good job of examining the issue at FanGraphs. She brought up a term called “tortious interference,” which is, according to Ring, “when one party knows that a second party has a contract with someone and induces that second party to breach his or her contract anyway.” As was the case with Judge, and as is the case with Harper, neither player was trying to get the other player (Machado/Trout) to breach his current contract; rather, they were talking about the players’ next contracts. Machado would complete his contract with the Orioles and then sign elsewhere. Judge hoped with the Yankees. Trout will complete his current contract with the Angels and then sign elsewhere. Harper hopes with the Phillies.
After Judge’s comment, Major League Baseball issued a statement, saying, “We have been in contact with the Yankees. They communicated to us that Mr. Judge’s off the cuff comments were not appropriate and not authorized by the club. They will speak to him to make sure that this does not happen again.” That was the extent of Judge’s punishment: a mere slap on the wrist. MLB could conceivably issue a warning to Harper and the Phillies, but anything beyond a statement would likely get challenged and MLB would likely have a tough time winning their case.
As MLB.com’s Todd Zolecki notes, Harper called Trout throughout the offseason to ask about the city of Philadelphia. There’s no possibility of tampering here since Harper was a free agent, but it’s clear the two stars are friendly enough with each other to talk about this stuff. What’s the line between two friends asking important questions about new cities and teams, and tampering between two peers on competing teams?