Funnily enough, it was just about 13 years ago.
When the Dodgers signed 29-year-old speedy singles hitter Juan Pierre to a five-year, $44 million contract in November 2006, I was upset. Pierre couldn’t have been a nicer human being, and down the road, in the wake of Manny Ramirez’s 2009 suspension, he became a redeemed folk hero not entirely unlike Juan Uribe.
From the day Pierre signed, however, the contract seemed like a waste of Dodger payroll at a time that Dodger payroll was precious. Given that he didn’t walk, throw, hit for power or succeed on enough on his stolen-base attempts, Pierre did not bring the Dodgers closer to ending their two-decade World Series drought.
Over time, especially since the end of the McCourt era, less and less has angered me since. I’ve changed, and the Dodgers have changed. This front office’s thinking aligns much better with mine, plus there is more money to spend. I also have realized that most things in baseball just aren’t worth getting that riled up about.
So when the news came Thursday that the Dodgers’ final interest in Bryce Harper had fallen short of a deal, I was pretty deeply disappointed, but I wasn’t angry. I’m willing to see what happens. It puts much more pressure on players like A.J. Pollock, Joc Pederson and Alex Verdugo, but I’m hopeful. I’m curious.
Still, though signing Harper might have turned badly for the Dodgers, I believe it was worth the risk.
Let’s address three common misconceptions about Harper and long-term contracts.
1) Bryce Harper and Albert Pujols are not the same.
Because of the massive, 13-year length of Harper’s contract, it has been compared to the 10-year contract Pujols signed with the Angels in December 2011. But too many people ignore that Pujols was about to turn 32. Harper won’t even turn 27 until just before the 2019 World Series. That’s five golden years that the Phillies get with Harper, plus whatever value they can take from him before he is finished. Those five years, in a sense, are everything.
It’s worth reminding ourselves: Why did the Angels make such a big play with Pujols? It was not because they were banking on him being valuable in his late 30s. It was because they had extra money to spend from a new TV deal, and they decided to bet it on a player that might help them win right away.
What has made the Pujols contract seem even worse is that the Angels heavily backloaded the deal, much more so than the Phillies have with Harper. For example, the Angels paid Pujols only $29 million for his first two seasons combined, compared with $30 million coming due in 2021 for his age-41 season.
2) There is no deferred money in Harper’s contract with the Phillies … but there is deferred money.
Harper is getting $330 million over 13 seasons. Technically, there are no gimmicks. He gets paid at a steady rate throughout: $30 million this year, and no less than $22 million for the other 12.
Contract breakdown for Bryce Harper's deal with the Philadelphia Phillies, sources tell ESPN:
2019: $10M (plus $20M signing bonus)
— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) March 1, 2019
But let’s be clear. Harper’s value to the Phillies does not parallel this salary structure. He is going to be worth far more than $26 million per year during his prime, and far less than $22 million per age as he approaches retirement age. From a pragmatic standpoint, a significant portion of his pay is being deferred.
The advantage is to the Phillies, who were probably prepared to offer Harper $330 million over a shorter period of time. They get to hold onto the cash longer. They have more flexibility during Harper’s prime years to make other improvements to the team. Or they can just earn interest on the money they are saving today in preparation for paying it out 10-plus years from now. There is little meaningful difference for the Phillies to pay Harper $330 million for 13 years vs. 10 years vs. seven years, if they believe — as they should — that his value to them is in his prime.
To whatever extent the Dodgers’ wanted to limit the years they were offering Harper, what they were really doing is trying to limit the overall cost — even if that meant paying more dollars in a given season than the Phillies are.
3) Despite the length of the contract, it is a short-term play.
The importance is in the dollars, not the duration. And if the dollars still intimidate you, remember how much money that a franchise like the Dodgers brings in from a variety of sources, most notably television.
Here’s another way to look at the Harper contract, particularly relevant to a fan base that is looking for its first World Series title since 1988.
Ask yourself these questions:
- Should you be happy to guarantee $330 million to a 26-year-old Harper if it meant getting at least one World Series title somewhere between 2019-2031?
- Should you be happy to guarantee $304 million to a 27-year-old Harper if it meant getting at least one World Series title somewhere between 2020-2031?
- Should you be happy to guarantee $278 million to a 28-year-old Harper if it meant getting at least one World Series title somewhere between 2021-2031?
- Should you be happy to guarantee $252 million to a 29-year-old Harper if it meant getting at least one World Series title somewhere between 2022-2031?
- Should you be happy to guarantee $226 million to a 30-year-old Harper if it meant getting at least one World Series title somewhere between 2023-2031?
- Should you be happy to guarantee $200 million to a 31-year-old Harper if it meant getting at least one World Series title somewhere between 2024-2031?
- And so on …
The answer to all these questions is yes. At this point, a single championship would justify the entire contract.
The problem, of course, is that you don’t know that your team will win the World Series, and that after X number of years, those odds will decrease. But oh, those first few years. Short of catastrophic injury, Harper would really help a franchise that has been on the precipice of winning for six straight years and counting. At his worst, he is good. At his best, he is transcendent. And the fact that still young enough to improve at this incredibly difficult game should count for quite a bit.
But if you’re asking whether Harper is worth a six-year, $330 million contract with half the money deferred, the answer is closer to yes than you might think.
There are ways to win a title without Bryce Harper, as the past 115 years of baseball history have shown us. I certainly don’t view him failing to sign as a surrender. But I also doubt that the Dodgers had the ability to make this signing happen and improve their World Series chances in a major way. I’ll get over it, but I can understand wondering how the Dodgers let this opportunity slip.