After the final out of the World Series, the baseball world entered a state of remarkable near-dormancy. Now-Angels phenom Shohei Ohtani was by far the most hyped player this offseason. Beyond him, there’s not been a ton of movement on the free agent market, even with Santana, Cain and Darvish choosing new destinations. This lack of fire to match the smoke has helped fuel discussion looking towards the historic 2019 free agent class. It’s been oft-reported that someone could break the $325 million earned by Marlins-turned-Yankees outfielder Giancarlo Stanton in his contract, even surpassing the $400 million mark. I’m not dismissing that possibility, but whenever the subject is broached, one name continues to surface as the potential recipient of that contract: Bryce Harper.

I believe there may be some $400 million talent in Major League Baseball right now. I don’t believe Harper is one of those players.

When justifying why Harper is worth $400 million, many to whom I’ve spoken often refer to several of the same facts to try and prove their point. The first is his legendary 2015 season. Yes, in 2015, which will have been four seasons in the past by the time Harper’s a free agent, he posted incredible numbers and was one of the clearest NL MVPs we may see in our lifetimes. Nobody can ever take that away from him. Before then, he had a career .272 average with a .816 OPS, 121 OPS+ (100 is league-average), and averaged 18 homers and 50 RBI. In bringing that up, a frequent counter-argument is his age, stating that because he was 19-21 he was nowhere near his prime yet and is only going to get better. He definitely has. In his age 23-24 seasons, he’s combined .278 with a .901 OPS, 133 OPS+, averaging 26 homers and 86 RBI. Harper has a ton of potential, but let’s not act like we’ve never seen someone of Harper’s talent before at his age.

First off, let’s just look at the last 25 years. Since 1993, among the 133 players who logged at least 1000 PA between their age 23-24 seasons, where do you think Harper ranks in, say, fWAR? 1st? 5th? 10th? Try 37th. In home runs? He is 33rd, with 53. OBP? 12th, with .391. His defensive rating according to Fangraphs? Down to 82nd out of 133. He is 20th in wRC+ at 131. So, in the context of players at his age, his performance since that historic season is hardly unheard of. Even if you factor in that historic age-22 season, his 22-24 age stats don’t place him in the top-three in any of those categories in the last 25 years. A player who is not top-three in any major metrics in the last 25 years, getting a contract worth $75 million or more than anyone else in league history? That doesn’t add up to me, especially when most of the players ahead of him weren’t worth anywhere near that in their careers, so it’s not as if there’s much recent precedent for players like him having sustainably elite careers (without substances). A couple exceptions include Mike Trout and Albert Pujols, one of which is universally agreed to be grossly underpaid and the other had the unfortunate reality of getting paid his worth at the age of 32 due to free agent rules that are finally being reevaluated. This is making his deal seem like an albatross now, whereas six years ago he would probably be also considered a bargain at his current rate.

As an added example, the well-respected source Baseball Reference has a nifty “similar players” calculator where they analyze players throughout history whose statistics by a given age align most closely with where a current player is in his own career. For Bryce Harper, these are the top five according to BR: Andruw Jones, Frank Robinson, Justin Upton, Giancarlo Stanton, and Ruben Sierra. This list includes one Hall-of-Famer, one Hall-of-Fame candidate who barely stayed on the ballot this year, one good-but-not-elite outfielder with a few All-Star appearances to his name, one great player who holds the record Harper’s trying to break (and whose contract became an albatross for his own franchise within two years), and a right fielder who only played 130+ games once after turning 28 years old. If I’m going to make a player the first ever in my sport to have a contract valued at or over $400 million, I want more proof and security than I believe Harper offers me at this point. If I can’t know that he either already is or at least is on track to being one of the greatest we’ve ever seen, I am not committing almost half a *billion* dollars to one player; I don’t care if I can afford it or not.

So, that’s in the context of age which is more about projecting forward, but what about the league right now? Let’s talk about how Harper looks amongst his competitors in the last three seasons combined. His fielding is slightly above average, sitting at 53rd among 120 qualified players in DRS. His offensive numbers in that span are definitely much more promising, as he is fourth in OBP, sixth in SLG (mostly due to that outlier in 2015), third in wRC+, and third in wOBA. This is an example of why I believe Harper is somewhere closer to the third- or fifth-best player in the game right now, not the second as some people would opine.

Another argument people have made is that 2016, when his stats dropped sharply from that previous season, was a “down year” and that he “would have been almost as good or even better” than 2015 this past season if he hadn’t gotten hurt / only played 111 games. I don’t find this necessarily true. While it is true that he had an extremely impressive start to the season, he began to drop off even before the injury. After peaking 88 games into the season, totaling 25 homers and 75 RBI to go along with a line of .338/.444/.641/1.085, he showed signs of regression in the next 18 games before the injury. His line dropped to .265/.288/.485/.773 in that span. Could he have bounced back in August or September for a strong finish a la Aaron Judge? It’s entirely possible, but he limped through another (albeit small) stretch of games to end the season upon his return, with a .417 OPS in five games to end his season. Is that 88-game stretch enough to guarantee that he would’ve returned to that exceptional form for even most of the 50-some missed games? Maybe, maybe not. But the amount of people making the affirmative assumption is quite baffling to me.

I understand that Harper is a very talented player who will hit free agency not only as a 25-year-old, but as one of the top players in baseball. He’s one of the few players that almost everyone “needs” and will theoretically play for, no matter who they have in their outfield. The age, talent, and laundry list of suitors for a bidding war make it very possible, perhaps even probable, that his price will exceed that of Stanton’s all-time deal. That being said, being the sole $400 million man, being $75 million (essentially a decent free agent’s entire contract) above anyone else in the game, is an entirely different beast.

Not to be a Barker, but in my own opinion as a fan as a writer, this leads me to believe that a $400 million Harper is a Bryce that ain’t right.

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