The Philadelphia Phillies, on Thursday, put an end to perhaps the most intense free agency courtship in history, signing outfielder Bryce Harper away from their divisional rivals, the Washington Nationals. The deal, 13 years and $330 million, is the largest in baseball history, and will keep Harper in red pinstripes through 2031, when he will be 39-years-old.
I live in the Philadelphia area, and my two sons, who are 9- and 7-years-old, are Phillies fans. The two of them will be either in college, or out of it, when Harper’s deal with the Phillies is up.
The first question that must be asked is, “will the deal be worth it for the Phillies?” From a financial standpoint, the answer is almost certainly yes. The Phillies get an astronomical amount of revenue from local television, and their owner, John Middleton, is the billionaire heir of a cigar company. The Harper deal has the potential to sell them a great deal of season ticket packages, as well.
The Phillies aren’t going broke, no matter what Harper does on the field. And because Harper agreed to sign for so long, he spread the money out for so long that he won’t put the Phillies close to the luxury tax threshold.
On the field, the signing of Harper gives the Phillies access to one of the game’s best players, one whose swing is tailor-made for Citizens Bank Park, a park where Harper has always played uncommonly well.
The worst case scenario is if Harper begins a career decline at some point in his early 30s, or becomes injury-prone as he ages. That was what happened when the Phillies gave first baseman Ryan Howard a five-year extension a decade ago, and he had essentially ceased to be a star player by the time the new contract kicked in.
But Harper has mostly stayed healthy throughout his career, and doesn’t have the stocky-first-baseman body type that’s often associated with early-30s declines for sluggers.
After years of speculation and preparation, the Phillies have finally landed their superstar.
Phillies finally agree to deal with Bryce Harper.https://t.co/IsMYurT3JX
— NBC Sports Philadelphia (@NBCSPhilly) February 28, 2019
With the Harper deal, the Phillies have followed through on owner John Middleton’s promise to get “stupid” with spending, while also spending in a way that few baseball teams did this offseason.
The news that Harper had signed with Philadelphia followed a day in which various reports indicated that he probably wasn’t signing with the Phillies, and that the team had fallen behind the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants.
This led to a Washington Post story in which local fans and media were quoted as looking forward to the day that they could boo Harper once he came to town with his new team. Angelo Cataldi, the morning sports radio host who often represents the unrestrained id of local sports fans, tweeted early Thursday that Harper “had a chance to play in sports heaven. Now he can go to hell.” That all went out the window, of course, when Harper signed with Philadelphia a few hours later.
— MLB The Show (@MLBTheShow) February 28, 2019
Philadelphia has a certain reputation for fan attitudes, and fan behavior, that isn’t altogether unearned. But what’s often left out of that — and as a transplant to the area, it took me awhile to grasp it — is that sports is extremely important to Philadelphia. People care a lot about the local teams, and winning there is nothing like winning anywhere else, which anyone who experienced the Eagles’ Super Bowl victory a year ago can attest. The decision to go big for Harper was likely done with that in mind.
There are many lessons of the Harper saga. One is that you shouldn’t believe every baseball rumor you hear. Another is that Harper’s agent, Scott Boras, often vilified by fans as an amoral snake, is extremely good at what he does, juggling offers and distributing media leaks in such a way that got his client paid handsomely. There’s a reason players hire that guy.
Another is that the Phillies, a team that for much of their history was run by owners frequently criticized as cheap, and then for decades after that had no real owner at all, are now a player in baseball bidding wars, the kind formerly dominated by the likes of the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.
And now that that’s done, get ready for another frenzy in two years for another superstar outfielder: Mike Trout. Since Trout is from Southern New Jersey, grew up rooting for the Phillies, and is a fixture at Philadelphia Eagles home games, you can expect the Phillies to get on the bidding for him as well. If they don’t, they can expect some loud boos.