In the meetings that led to him becoming the highest-paid athlete in the history of team sports, Bryce Harper kept coming back to one word: family. The protracted, bordering-on-interminable nature of his near-four-month-long free-agent odyssey never changed that. He knew what he was worth. He knew the teams courting him knew, too. He wanted to be paid, sure, but he also wanted to feel like his next team shared a shatterproof commitment.
So when Philadelphia Phillies owner John Middleton took his private jet from Florida to Las Vegas a week ago, he wasn’t alone. Accompanying Middleton was his wife, Leigh. They wanted to show Harper and his wife, Kayla, that family mattered to them as well — that they would compound years and dollars with action that spoke to what he sought.
That alone didn’t convince Harper to agree to the massive 13-year, $330 million deal, to which he agreed with the Phillies on Thursday. It did inform other elements of the contract, namely the lack of an opt-out clause and presence of a full no-trade clause. While opt-outs were discussed during the negotiations, Harper, in the end, said he didn’t want one. If he was going to convince others to join him chasing championships in Philadelphia, players needed to know he wasn’t going anywhere.
And thus came a record-tying number of years, a record-breaking number of dollars and a 26-year-old MVP-winning outfielder decamping from the only team he’d known, the Washington Nationals, for their National League East rival. The signing, which will become official upon the completion of a physical set for Friday, could tip the power balance in the division toward the Phillies, who cherry-on-topped an already-fruitful offseason with the game’s most recognizable player.
The deal is mutually beneficial. Philadelphia adds a middle-of-the-order bat to a lineup that already includes the homegrown Rhys Hoskins and a pair of dangerous trade acquisitions, catcher J.T. Realmuto and shortstop Jean Segura. It gets to sell tickets and sponsorships around Harper. And because the deal’s average annual value is $25.4 million, it gets flexibility to spend more in coming offseasons and not run the risk of exceeding the luxury-tax threshold. In other words: Yes, an outfield with Harper and Philadelphia-area native Mike Trout is plenty realistic.
Harper wins by not just becoming the highest-paid team-sports athlete in history but by getting to spend 81 games a year in a stadium perfectly suited for him. While Harper possesses power to all fields, the vast majority of his 184 career home runs have gone to his pull side, and Citizens Bank Park’s right-center power alley is 369 feet and its right-field line 330 feet. His legacy is only one-third written, and the rest of it is primed to include balls flying into the second and third decks in Philadelphia.
Harper could have gone to San Francisco, its willingness to give him a double-digit-year deal convinced the Phillies they weren’t bidding against themselves, or Los Angeles, where the Dodgers were ready to offer him a record average annual value and the ability to opt out after perhaps two years. Harper could have easily exceeded Zack Greinke‘s record $34.4 million average annual value on a short-term deal and had another bite at the apple before he hit 30 years old.
Right or wrong, that didn’t appeal to Harper. It didn’t matter that he was coming off a season in which his pedestrian outfield defense sunk his wins above replacement and had the opportunity to play a couple of years for an excellent Dodgers team, opt out, enter free agency again coming off a better season and hit an even bigger bonanza of a deal. He desired security and what came with it.
For now, he holds the title of Biggest Deal Ever. He’ll get $30 million this year ($20 million of it in a signing bonus), $26 million for the nine years after that and $22 million for the final three seasons. His grasp on the record could be short-lived if the Los Angeles Angels endeavor to keep Trout from reaching free agency following the 2020 season. Exceeding the $325 million deal Giancarlo Stanton signed in 2014 mattered enough that Harper was willing to miss nearly three weeks of spring training to ensure it happened.
At the same time, the notion of dedication, of loyalty, of all things familial came up often enough during his meetings with teams that they had to take it seriously. It was the Harpers’ way of saying that this pledge was ironclad.
Which, for now, it is. Harper will be all smiles at his media conference. Phillies officials will beam. The first day is always happily ever after. They’ll do everything shy of smearing cake frosting on each other’s noses. Then comes the hard part. A marriage between star and team isn’t easy, and it’s especially difficult when that star happens to be guaranteed $330 million in a market that does not suffer failure gladly.
At some point, the bond will be tested and the vow questioned, because no relationship can be perfect. And when that happens, they’ll remember that the old chestnut — you can’t choose your family — doesn’t apply to baseball. Bryce Harper chose his. And he can only hope it was for the right reasons.