A few days ago, Joe Posnanski wrote about the possibility of Bryce Harper getting the first $500m contract ever. I agree with him on how both amazing and ridiculous it would have sounded 2 or 3 years ago. I also agree it is possible, almost likely, to happen. I might not be a Bryce Harper fan but he is so young that is he is on track to accomplish big things. He is not Mike 'King' Trout but he is very good.
Harper's current contract runs through the end of 2018, which is when I assume he would get the big fat check. The Nationals will try to extend his contract before he is a free agent, just like the Marlins and the Angels did with Giancarlo Stanton and Mike Trout. However, in this post we will assume Harper will not pursue that path, making him a high-coveted free agent in 2018. I will also exclude the possibility of 9 or 10 year contracts, which would make the mark easily achievable. Let's run the numbers for Harper's future:
We have here Harper's projected value profile. As usual, I am using FanGraphs model, which has a player's aging curve that follows +0.25 WAR/year (Age 18-27), 0 WAR/year (Age 28-30),-0.5 WAR/year (Age 31-37),-0.75 WAR/year (38 and older). It also assumes that open market WAR sits at $8.4m in 2016 and grows at 5% per year. The starting point is Steamer's 2016 projection: 6.8 WAR.
Three years from now, in the winter of 2018, he will be negotiating his new contract that includes his theoretical peak 27-30 years at ~7.8 WAR/year. The truth is that a 7 year / $500+ contract would only be likely if by 2018 he can position himself as a player who consistently accounts for almost 8 wins per year. That is the only reason a team would be eager to invest half a billion dollars in a single player, marketing-related reasons aside.
Now, the question comes down to what he needs to do by 2018 in order to cement that positioning. The model needs him to be a 21.2-win player during the next 3 seasons. While Harper might have taken a significant step up performance-wise, we need to remind ourselves that before 2015 he was 'just' a ~4-5 WAR guy. In order to meet the model's expectations he needs to double those numbers, and remain at that level for 3 years in a row (i.e.: Between 8-9 WAR for that 3 year period). If he meets those marks, Harper would have accrued 40 WAR during his career by 2018. While that is entirely possible, it is not easy. This is the list of highest cumulative WAR by age-25:
So, two conclusions can be quickly drawn. First, Mike Trout is not human. He is only 24 years old and is already on this list with guys like Cobb, Mantle, Foxx and company. Second, no, it is not an easy task for Harper. I know that you are thinking that he just put up a 9.5 WAR season, why can't he do it again? Another season like that and he should get to his target easily but, truth be told, those Trout-esque seasons are unlikely to happen. I say this for three main reasons. First, Harper is not an elite defender and has gotten worse every year. For the last 3 seasons (2013-2015), he ranks 37th in UZR/150 out of 60 qualified OF. In 2015, he compiled -8.5 on Defense (Def) metric, per FanGraphs, which is position-adjusted, in his case for RF. Out of the 69 individual seasons with 8 or higher WAR from players 25 or younger, only 5 players (Hank Aaron, Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Mike Trout (!) and Bryce Harper) had -8 or worse Defense. No, it is not impossible but it is hard. Second, he is an above average base runner, but not an awesome one. Lastly, Harper has not exhibited good health over his career. He has had injuries in 2 out of 4 seasons, which may not seem many but in 2013 and 2014 he only played 67% of Nationals games. Predicting health is tough, especially because there are unforeseeable events. You cannot control a hit by pitch at your wrists or a concussion sliding in second base but your health track record is your best bet on your future injury report. Those three things are vital to get to 21.2 WAR during the next 3 years. Harper needs those factors to come in play in order to get to the 7yr/$500m contract. Harper's advantage is his age - just like Jason Heyward this offseason.
We have implicitly talked about Mike Trout. He is arguably the best player in baseball right now and was on track to smash the contract record, until he negotiated a 6yr/$144.5m contract extension. That will keep him locked up from ages 24 to 29 at LAA. Now, the question is what type of contract will he command in 2020? Mind you, it is hard enough to try to predict what a Free Agent might get in 2016, but still we took a stab a it.
Here is Trout's projection. Again, 2016 WAR is courtesy of Steamer. We might think the aging curve slightly benefits Trout because it forecasts a ~10% increase in WAR, and he has not posted those 10 WAR seasons since 2 years ago. Then again, let's toy with the idea. The $500m contract here seems more feasible for three reasons. First, in MLB, you get paid for what you did and not for what you will do. By 2020, Trout could have ~85 WAR under his belt - he would be 28 years old. That is just ridiculous and will not happen, right? No one, ever, has done that by age 28 (Ty Cobb is the leader with 78.6 WAR). But what if he does? What if Trout is around the 70 WAR mark with 8 or 9 great seasons on his resume? Second, he needs to do what he has already done e.g. Trout has posted two +10 WAR already. The other two seasons were 8 and 9. This guy runs well and plays above average defense. Trout does it all and will not stop. Third, unlike Harper, Trout has been very much healthy. During the 2013-2015 period, he played 157, 157 and 159 games, respectively. Again, injuries are hard to predict but we will take what he has shown so far as a given, which is good health. Fourth, fair to say, time value of money. A dollar today is not worth the same as a dollar tomorrow. Therefore, getting a $500m contract in 2020 should be easier than in 2018.
In summary, I think Harper can do it but I would not bet on it. From my perspective this is a long shot. If you ask me today on who is more likely to become baseball's first 500 million dollar man, I would put my money on Mike Trout to beat Bryce Harper on this as well.
By Oswaldo Gonzalez