Salary arbitration is a funny thing. Players come up from the minors and play for three years at a league minimum salary, currently around $550K per year, before they become arbitration-eligible. For the next three seasons, they are still under team control, but can negotiate a higher number and, if a salary is not agreed upon, give the salary decision to an arbiter.
Tigers pitcher David Price broke the record this past winter, getting $19.75M from the team in a case that didn’t reach arbitration. The previous record was also set by a Tigers pitcher, current Nationals Ace Max Scherzer in the previous offseason, at $15.25M.
All this is important because Bryce Harper is entering an arbitration-eligible season. He technically was a “Super Two” player and was able to go to arbitration last year, but we’ll get to that in a minute. First, let’s talk about how much he’d be worth in arbitration. He will enter the offseason, most likely, with an award stating that he’s the best player in the NL. And, according to fangraphs, he’s been worth $73M this year. So far. Now, that number is absurd, but saying the best player deserves the most money is much less absurd, and you start eying that David Price number.
Considering the emphasis placed on experience, and prior seasons’ performance, he might not crack a new record. He might argue, with good reason, that he’s worth well more than $20M, but considering his lack of consistent career numbers and playing time, I’d guess he’d wind up with a number south of that, maybe even below $10M in his first year of arbitration.
Don’t Worry… Yet
But he’s not going to salary arbitration. When he was eligible (possibly) at the end of last year, the Nats and Bryce agreed upon a $2.5 M salary for 2015, and a $5 M salary for 2016. This now seems painfully low, for him, at least, although I’m sure the Nats will take it. As for 2017 and 2018, though, I’m sure the numbers will be increased. And if in 2016 he looks close to 2015 Harper, he could break the record. The Nats will probably have to pay him on the order of $15-$20 M a year for his last two seasons, which could still be a bargain.
But that $5M salary for next year seems so out of whack with what he could get if he remained arb-eligible, let alone was a free agent, it leaves the Nats with an opening to try to sign him long term. And why wouldn’t they want to?
Comparing him to the biggest contracts out there that have been signed recently takes you right to Giancarlo Stanton and Miguel Cabrera. Stanton signed a 13 year deal, with an AAV of $25M. Cabrera signed an 8 year deal, with an AAV of $31M. Cabrera’s deal was a free agent deal, but Stanton had a few years of arbitration ahead of him, so his early salaries depress his total value. He’s getting some guarantees, as well as an opt out, but he’s not getting as much early as he could.
Bryce is guaranteed to get $5M next year, and is likely to get a little under $40M over the following two. But the Nats could structure some deal so that he gets money sooner. If they were to offer him a 10 year, $300 M deal, he’d be getting the $30 M per year top players are getting, but if that’s divided evenly, he’s also making $45 M more over the next three seasons. That’s a big deal.
Is $300/10 enough? I doubt it. But at $350 M, or an additional $5M per year, it’s still an appealing contract for the Nationals. The best part about it, though, is they have a chance, however slight because Scott Boras is his agent, to get him long term right now. And unlike the Cabrera contract, he should still be quite productive by the end. He’s 22, give him 10 or even 12 years right now and you’d probably only see the beginning of the decline. To me, $330/10 (breaks Giancarlo’s overall contract value record) is a good starting point, and I’d certainly consider going up in overall value or years if he shows any interest.
It’s most likely that Harper is going to try to test the free agent market. He’s a 22 year old superstar who has a good chance to get the biggest contract of all time when he becomes a free agent in October of 2018, at the ripe old age of 25. But there is a window of opportunity, right now, where the Nats might be able to give him enough incentive to sign now. A year from now, as he negotiates to make $15 M or so in 2017, enough money to set him for life, the security of a long term deal probably won’t outweigh the opportunity to test the free agent market.
However, this offseason, the Nats could give him that record breaking contract, giving him that satisfaction, and maybe the next three years of being “underpaid” would give him some reason to consider this. There’s a window to keep Bryce for his whole career without having to negotiate against other teams, and while it’s only open a crack, it’s probably only open for the next few months.