Bryce Harper: Phillies’ Solution or Baseball’s Long-Running Problem?

Staff ace Aaron Nola was headed to salary arbitration weeks ago until he reached a four-year, $45 million deal with the Philadelphia Phillies. “I don’t play specifically for the money,” he actually said after signing his contract, “I play for the love of the game. I play for my teammates.”

One of those teammates Nola will selflessly pitch for this season just signed what was, for almost three weeks, the largest contract in baseball history, one that makes his own $45 million deal seem minor league.

It feels obligatory to open the 2019 spring training column with mention of Bryce Harper and his spanking new 13-year, $330 Million Dollar Guaranteed Contract. That’s $330,000,000 — with six zeros after the 330.

Counting Harper’s $20M signing bonus, it works out to an average annual salary of $25,384,615 through 2031. To play baseball.

Were the Philadelphia Phillies inclined to recoup that salary from their paying fans, Citizens Bank Park ticket prices would increase by more than $7.25 per game, assuming that with Harper now manning right field, every game sells out over the next 13 years.

The contract is backloaded so Harper’s 2019 salary of “only” $10 million is hardly record-setting, especially when compared to 2019’s highest-paid player, Stephen Strasburg, who will earn $38,333,334 to pitch for Harper’s former team, the Washington Nationals. In the same rotation is baseball’s second highest-paid player, Max Scherzer, at $37,405,562.

The rest of the highest-priced rotation consists of Zack Greinke of the Arizona Diamondbacks, earning $34.5 million, and southpaws Clayton Kershaw of the Los Angeles Dodgers and David Price of the Boston Red Sox, each taking home $31 million. The best paid relief pitcher is the Dodgers’ Kenley Jansen ($19,333,334).

Continuing around the horn on 2019’s all-salary team, Miguel Cabrera ($30 million) of the Detroit Tigers is at first base; newly signed Robinson Cano ($24 million) joins the New York Mets and handles second; Elvis Andrus ($15,250,000) of the Texas Rangers is at short; and the Colorado Rockies’ Nolan Arenado ($26 million) plays third. (Manny Machado’s $30M average annual salary to play third for the Padres doesn’t kick in until 2020.) Behind the plate is the San Francisco Giants’ Buster Posey ($22,177,777).

The most expensive outfielders are Matt Kemp ($21.5 million), newly of the Cincinnati Reds, in left; future first ballot Hall of Famer Mike Trout ($34 million) of the Los Angeles Angels in center; and in right is not Bryce Harper, but the unlikely Jason Heyward ($22.5 million) of the Chicago Cubs.

Finally, the New York Yankees’ Giancarlo Stanton ($26 million), is the game’s best-paid designated hitter.

In a sport where the major league minimum salary is $555,000, Harper’s deal for over $25M per year was expected to have some staying power atop baseball’s pay scale.

Then, the Angels unexpectedly added 10 years and $360 million to Trout’s contract at age 27, widely considered today’s best player. No one was happier that Trout made history with a total deal worth $426.5 million through 2030 than Harper, who watched his signing “blow me out of the water.”

Of the teams paying highest-in-baseball salaries in 2019, only three are subject to Major League Baseball’s Competitive Balance Tax, commonly known as the “luxury tax.” The Red Sox total payroll leads baseball in 2019 at $220,451,102, while the Cubs come in second at $209,450,714, followed closely by the Yankees at $209,265,921.

No other payroll exceeds $206 million, the 2019 luxury tax threshold.

Getting luxury-taxed isn’t so easy.

Take the Phillies. Beyond signing Harper and Nola, Philadelphia traded for all-star shortstop Jean Segura (average salary: $14M) and contracted with both former league MVP Andrew McCutchen (average salary: $16,666,667), and Mariano Rivera’s successor as Yankee closer, David Robertson ($11.5M).

And they added perhaps the best catcher in baseball, J.T. Realmuto, though at a team-friendly contract ($5.9M). With all this activity, the Fightin’ Phils still didn’t get luxury-taxed.

Baseball is the only major sport without a formal salary cap, but the luxury tax sure looks like one.

The tax is punitive, requiring teams exceeding the threshold for the first time to pay 20 percent of the average, while teams in excess for a second consecutive year are assessed a 30 percent penalty. Teams remaining on the wrong side of the line for three or more years must pay the league a 50 percent luxury tax.

Of course, punishment is probably appropriate in Chicago’s case.

Signing Heyward to a bloated eight-year, $184 million guaranteed contract after failing to learn the lesson of Alfonso Soriano’s bloated eight-year, $134 million guaranteed contract a decade earlier merits discipline. Heyward’s contract has been rated among the game’s worst by baseball writers Dan Szymborski (fifth worst) and Grey Papke (10th worst).

Suffering both the luxury tax and the mediocrity of Jason Heyward in his first three years as a Cub (.252 batting average; never more than 59 RBI or 11 HR; post-season average of .103) should finally convince the team to resist long-term free agent signings, even without raising last season’s six-year, $126 million signing of Yu Darvish.

Boston’s league-high payroll includes the free agent signing of Price to a seven-year, $217 million contract in 2016, and then resigning free agent Nathan Eovaldi to a four-year, $68 million deal this off-season.

Meanwhile, after trading for Stanton last year, the 2019 roster of the Yankees, who seemingly contend for every free agent hitting the market, will feature at least five newly signed free agents at a combined cost of more than $124.5 million.

Increasingly, clubs looking to improve their rosters without overpaying free agents are trading prospects for targeted major league talent. The Reds, Mets, Nationals, White Sox, A’s and Astros were among the teams swapping potential future stars for present big leaguers this past offseason.

While the risk of a traded minor leaguer returning to haunt his former team always lurks (Exhibit A: Eloy Jiminez), each of these teams is expected to contend or at least significantly improve in 2019 and none is any danger of crossing the luxury tax threshold.

Another ever-present danger of continuing to shop on the free agent market is the impact on ticket prices.

Were the Phillies inclined to recoup their investment in Bryce Harper by raising ticket prices, they would find plenty of give before approaching last year’s highest priced teams: the same Red Sox, Cubs and Yankees with baseball’s highest team salaries.

But not in that order. The game’s most expensive ticket was found at Wrigley Field.

To view this article as published in the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin, click here.