First and foremost, add me to the list of perennial Bryce Harper detractors. At this point in his career, I refuse to credit him as being anything more than a good (not great) hitter whose hype far exceeded his production. Nonetheless I can acknowledge something very impactful that Harper did, aside from bringing a title back to D.C. You see, Bryce Harper just inadvertently reset baseball’s pitching market to an overwhelming degree.
Let me take you back to June of 2010. After their relocation from Montreal in 2005, the ex-Expos had struggled mightily through their first five seasons playing in our nation’s capital, finishing last in the NL East in every campaign with the exception of 2007 (where their record bested the Marlins’ by all of two wins). The positive of their plummet to baseball’s cellar was the opportunity to stock up on premier draft talent annually. With the top selection in the amateur draft that year, the Nationals selected the most highly-touted, draft-eligible, position player of the 21st century: a then-catcher by the name of Bryce Harper.
Harper’s insane offensive abilities and shocking athleticism, led to the Nationals converting him to the outfield upon his earliest arrival in their farm system, in an effort to potentially prolong his baseball career beyond the condensed shelf life of the average big league backstop. He rose through the farm system in meteoric fashion, debuting on Washington’s major league roster as a 19 year old in April of 2012. He had a couple of outstanding campaigns, most notably his MVP year in 2015, which led to him joining Manny Machado as the most coveted free agents of last year’s offseason.
For all intents and purposes, the Washington Nationals did what they could to retain the services of their home grown superstar, but their unwillingness to offer him the lengthy deal he sought led to him departing for the division rival Philadelphia Phillies. Baseball fans thought they understood the gravity of the situation at the time, but they failed to foresee the lasting effects Harper’s departure from D.C. would have almost a year later.
This isn’t a tale of how the Nationals beat the odds after moving on from Harper, to win the World Series he could never deliver. This is the tale of what has transpired since then. Because on Monday, December 9th, the Washington Nationals agreed to a record-setting 7-year $245 Million contract with their other homegrown phenom, and I think it has more to do with Bryce Harper than anyone else is willing to speak about.
You see, a year before the Nationals took Harper with their first overall selection, they took baseball’s most highly touted pitching prospect of all time at the same spot in 2009. Stephen Strasburg’s domination of opposing hitters during his tenure at San Diego State, led to the him becoming arguably the most salivated over draft prospect since Ken Griffey Jr. back in 1987. And the Nationals’ persistent poor performances paid off in the form of being able to not only draft him, but promote him to their starting rotation by June 8th of the following year, coincidentally 24 hours ahead of Bryce Harper getting the call on Draft night.
Ever the “team-guy” Strasburg agreed to a contract extension back in the Spring of 2016 that would force him to forgo his first few years of Free Agent eligibility but enable him to opt out this year in search of a more lucrative deal. He did just that at the peak of his career, following a historic World Series performance that not only netted the Nats their first championship, but himself the coveted MVP award of the sport’s most important seven game stretch.
Having lost out on one of their franchise cornerstones a year ago, to a division rival no less, meant that the Washington Nationals had to go all in on Strasburg regardless of what the price tag was…and so they did. With their World Series hero only taking a single meeting with another team (the New York Yankees back on December 3rd), the Nationals jumped the gun and gave him more money than anyone else would have conceivably thought to give him. That seven-year, $245 million contract, was reportedly the initial offer presented to Gerrit Cole by the Yankees this weekend. A record breaking deal for a pitcher, that would have been tough for others to try matching if given the chance.
Cole, the perceived 1a to Strasburg’s 1b this Winter, can now take a peak at the years and dollar amount of that deal and justifiably ask for an even greater contract considering he’s two years younger, doesn’t have the same history of Tommy John surgery, and has been unquestionably better over the last 5 seasons. New estimates for Cole’s salary now leap into the stratosphere, with some speculating that the perennial Cy Young candidate could command an upwards of $300 million over that same stretch of time.
That isn’t the only way Harper has managed to impact the pitching market this Winter. His new team, the Philadelphia Phillies, missed out on the Playoffs in his inaugural season there. But because they inked a superstar in his prime to such a big money contract, it has accelerated their otherwise methodically paced rebuild. They’ve jumped into win-now mode and that means adding the best pitching they could afford in a hurry. Cole and Strasburg are far beyond the financial threshold that Philly’s ownership was going to allow the front office to spend, but securing the services of Zack Wheeler as soon as possible meant that they wouldn’t have to contend with a hyper competitive pitching market this Winter.
Wheeler’s deal with Philadelphia, for five year and $118 Million, sets the stage for the rest of that next tier of starters below Cole and Strasburg to receive equivalent overpays in the coming weeks. A guy like Hyun-Jin Ryu can point to his Cy Young runner-up season in 2019 as a reason for him getting the same annual salary as a guy like Wheeler; Madison Bumgarner can point to his postseason resume being stuff of legend as a reason that he should get a deal a bit betterer than that; and the list continues on with more and more pitchers seeing their market value rise with the paydays of their free agency classmates.
If we’re looking at Bryce Harper’s impact on baseball from a statistical standpoint since he got drafted out of the Community College of Southern Nevada back in 2010, then we’re looking at a good contributor but hardly the generational talent we were led to believe that he’d become. If we’re looking at Bryce Harper’s impact on baseball from a marketing standpoint since his debut in 2012, it’s easy to label him a star because of the sheer volume of merchandise the man has been able to move for his clubs and Under Armor alike. If we’re looking at Bryce Harper’s impact on baseball from a money standpoint though, he has forever changed the game of baseball.
Bryce Harper’s departure from D.C. led to the Nationals overpaying Stephen Strasburg to stay put. That has paved the way for Gerrit Cole to get an even greater contract in the coming days. And that’ll set the new standard by which superstar starters get paid for the next decade or so.
In Philadelphia, the addition of Bryce Harper pushed the Phillies into “win-now” mode despite not necessarily having the checkbook to pursue elite arms. Instead they had to pivot towards overpaying a mid-rotation guy to lock him down early. That set the market for every other starter this Winter to get paid something similar. And in the coming years, that’ll lead to every free agent pitcher believing that they deserve something around those numbers too.
Bryce Harper likely won’t get the credit he deserves on this…
But now even I find myself in awe of his impact…