So here's a question: Should Bryce Harper sign a one-year deal this offseason?
I know that sounds like a crazy idea. It's Bryce Harper! He's only 26 years old, he's one of the most magnetic, hypnotic players in baseball, he has been waiting his whole career to reach this offseason, teams are lining up to sign him, he's Bryce Harper. It wasn't long ago that people were openly speculating that Harper had a chance to be baseball's first $400 million player, with a 10-year, $40-million-a-season deal. Even with Harper's second-half surge, that's not going to happen, and not necessarily because of any of Harper's shortcomings. He's not even guaranteed to get the biggest deal this offseason, thanks to Manny Machado's massive season and accompanying excellent timing.
• Harper officially becomes free agent
This is crazy. This is Bryce Harper! We've been talking about his free agency ever since he got into the league, and one rough first half might have put him behind Machado, a guy who had the fifth-best OPS on his own team just last year. (A team that finished 12 games under .500 no less.) There will be a club that will try to take advantage of this come Hot Stove season, to try to sneak Harper's price down because of a difficult first half and the Nationals' somewhat disappointing campaign. So I say: Let Harper take advantage of it himself.
What's the ceiling for a Harper long-term contract this offseason? He's said to be aiming at $300 million -- well, he's probably aiming for $40 trillion, but hey, aren't we all? -- but, I dunno, does that look like a contract a team would be willing to give him right now? Think about these three major factors:
1. Harper's fluctuation.
Harper put together an outstanding .300/.434/.538 second half. But people aren't going to forget that first half anytime soon: .214/.365/.468. The guy has his dead spots. Remember, his line in August/September 2017 was .254/.295/.382. Harper can be streaky. Are you ready to pay for 10 years at the highest possible price for streaky?
2. Industry hesitance to sign long-term deals
The biggest deal last offseason was eight years at $144 million (Eric Hosmer, Padres). The season before? Four years, $110 million (Yoenis Cespedes, Mets). And the year before that? Seven years, $217 million (David Price, Red Sox). Teams haven't gotten more eager to give out long-term deals since then, either. There is too much anecdotal evidence of long-term deals turning out to be disasters by taking too huge of a bet on a guy who occasionally disappears for a month or so at a time.
3. Lack of suitors.
Jim Bowden at the Athletic lists eight possible suitors for Harper: Cubs, Dodgers, Yankees, Braves, Phillies, Giants, Angels and Nationals. I don't think all these teams are serious suitors. The Giants and Angels? No way. It might take the entirety of Harper's contract for those teams to be elite again. The Yankees have no room in their outfield. The Braves generally don't give out deals of this magnitude. The Cubs, Dodgers and Phillies … those look like the major players, with the possibility of the Yankees sticking their nose in just because.
That makes just three teams willing to write a massive contract for Harper. But -- and here we are -- what if Harper was up for just one year? That raises the number of teams who would get in on Harper from three to … what … 25? If Harper were available for just one year, and then he were off the books, and a team didn't have to commit the next decade of its franchise to him being the center of its payroll, then any club even within shouting distance of contention would have to seriously consider it. At one year? Who couldn't use him for one year?
Last year, Fangraphs estimated that one fWAR is worth roughly $11.7 million on the free-agent market. That's an imprecise number, obviously, but it gives you an idea. This season, with the down first half, Harper was worth 3.5 WAR. In 2017, another "down" year, he was worth 4.8. Harper's NL MVP Award-winning season of 2015? 9.3. Considering how excellent he has been in the second half, and how great we've seen him be before, you don't think somebody would dream on even a 6-WAR season? You could pay Harper a lot more for a one-year deal than he'd get in terms of average annual value on a long-term contract and still get a discount from a 6-WAR season.
And that's the thing: Harper could do this every year until he has a year that's great enough -- far better than Machado's 2018 that's pushing him ahead of Harper in the first place -- to get him a long-term deal that suits him. He's only 26! (Remember: younger than Kristopher Bryant.) If he has that exceptional season like he had in '15, like we all know he's capable of, he'll have made the best possible free-agent case for himself at the best possible time, just like Machado just did. And Harper will only be six months older in a year than Machado is right now.
Or Harper can go out and get himself another one-year deal. (As an added bonus, if he takes a one-year deal this offseason, he can hit the market next offseason without a qualifying offer attached, which means the team that signs him wouldn't have to give up any Draft-pick compensation. Since Machado was traded at midseason, he can't receive a qualifying offer this offseason, giving him a slight advantage relative to Harper because of this.)
Theoretically, Harper could keep betting on himself on short-term deals. And I bet if he plays it right, he makes more money than $400 million over the next 10 years and gets to pick and choose wherever he plays every year, rather than getting stuck on a non-contender like, say, Michael Trout.
There is legitimate logic to this. Teams have clearly shown they will make a short-term contract work for them. Perhaps it is now the players' turn to do the same thing for themselves. And there may be no better proof of concept than Bryce Harper. C'mon, Bryce. Let's make this offseason really crazy.