One of the most complex courtships in baseball history took four agonizing months, but All-Star outfielder finally got exactly what he wanted: the biggest contract ever and the chance to chase records and titles with one team over the rest of his career. All he had to do was gin up some competition and persuade just one owner he was worth it
THE MOST EXPENSIVE DEAL IN BASEBALL HISTORY was struck in a casino. The Phillies' last best chance to woo outfielder Bryce Harper took place amid the high-backed gold-leather booths and white linens of Carbone, a restaurant in Las Vegas's ARIA Resort & Casino that has the feel and fragrance of mid-century Hollywood. When it comes to the rare baseball player with star power, a location scout could not have done better to portray glamour and showmanship.
It was a Friday night, Feb. 22, when Phillies owner John Middleton and his wife, Leigh, met with Harper, his wife, Kayla, and his agent, Scott Boras. It was Middleton's third trip to see Harper in Vegas. Philadelphia had been his most aggressive pursuer all along, but fancy linen or not, Harper and Boras would not be easily won over. They wanted to top the record $325 million contract of Yankees slugger Giancarlo Stanton, and they needed three more years out of Middleton to get it done.
Harper, 26, had given Boras strict instructions at the start of his free agency: Prioritize length of contract, and don't bother with opt-outs. "He said, 'I want to be with one team,'" Boras recalls. "I tried to talk him out of it. He gave me my marching orders."
The dinner included almost no talk about terms. "I may have said five minutes' worth of words," Boras said. "John and Leigh, Bryce and Kayla, they just talked."
Middleton spent most of the time giving his best Chamber of Commerce speech. He talked up the Philadelphia area's schools, hospitals, restaurants and quality of life. When the Phillies began their courtship of Harper in December, they kicked it off with a slickly produced video in which the club had as many prominent Philadelphians as possible—athletes, politicians, restaurateurs, coaches, business owners—pitch directly to Harper. The footage also showed marquees of local arenas with his name in lights.
Still, the Phillies were not comfortable offering Harper, a six-time All-Star and the 2015 NL MVP, more than 10 years. He had neither the length nor the record dollars he wanted until the last week in February. "It took a hell of a long time to get those [last three] years," Boras says.
Starting with the Friday dinner, Boras needed one last whirlwind of a week to get the years needed to surpass the Stanton contract. On Saturday, the Middletons had lunch with the Harpers before zipping back to Clearwater, Fla. On Sunday, with the exhaust from Middleton's private jet barely dissipated, a contingent from the Dodgers flew into McCarran Airport in Las Vegas to offer Harper a record salary, but on a deal covering only four or five years. (The top average annual value—or AAV—bid to Harper was $43 million; Boras would not confirm it was from the Dodgers.) On Tuesday, right behind their divisional rival, the Giants jetted in with a 12-year offer worth around $310 million, as reported by NBC Sports Bay Area. All of Boras's stagecraft had the desired effect.
On Thursday morning Middleton called Boras to offer $330 million over 13 years. Boras hung up the phone and at 11:34 PST he called Harper. Kayla joined Bryce on the phone.
"I've got it," Boras said. "I've got the terms of the final deal. Just give me the O.K., and it's done."
Bryce and Kayla quickly gave their consent, ending one of the longest and strangest courtships since free agency began in 1976. It also concluded a full decade of planning by Boras and Harper since Harper left high school early. It did not answer, however, the biggest question that hung over the entire offseason: Is Bryce Harper worth it?
TO GET the biggest deal in MLB history, Boras and Harper essentially used the last three years of the contract as the equivalent of deferred money to help the Phillies reduce the amount counted toward the Competitive Balance Tax, or luxury tax threshold. That AAV still leaves room for the Phillies to bid on Mike Trout if Trout becomes a free agent after the 2020 season. A club source said before this offseason began that the club had enough money to sign both Manny Machado and Harper but wanted just one of them in order to keep money in reserve for Trout.
Harper's detractors define him as a superstar celebrity without the superstar numbers. Over the past three seasons, Harper ranks 86th in WAR, making him less valuable by that metric than Corey Dickerson, an outfielder traded away by the Rays. In a baseball world dedicated to analytics, Boras had to resort to his old-school ways to wring value for Harper: Sell teams on the subjectivity of his charisma by making a direct connection with ownership rather than with the number-crunchers who build teams.
Middleton, though, says he didn't need to hear how much Harper's star power could help increase the Phillies' revenues. "I said, 'Scott, I'm not interested in marketing dollars, tickets sold, billboards, concessions,'" Middleton recalled last Sunday. "I said, 'There's only one reason I'm talking to you, and that's because I believe this guy can help us win.'
"I've made enough money in my life. My franchise value has risen dramatically over the last 25 years. I don't need it to rise more. I'm here to win. I think your guy can help me win, and that's all I want to talk about.'"
Before the process even began, Boras lost a huge bargaining chip when the Nationals, who drafted Harper with the No. 1 pick in 2010, sent an offer on the last weekend of the regular season. It was reported to be $300 million over 10 years but included so much deferred money over such a long period—Harper would be 60 when the last payments were made—that the net present value was $184 million. The Harper camp saw the offer as little more than a publicity gesture to appease fans.
A source close to Washington described Boras's response: "Crickets." Harper lost another potentially key suitor when the Yankees showed almost no interest. New York made pitching its priority, and even dabbled in the Machado sweepstakes (page 42) because it prized a Gold Glove infielder more than another slugging outfielder. (The Yanks already had Stanton and Judge under control through at least 2022 and would soon give Aaron Hicks a seven-year, $70 million extension.) Some teams, such as the Braves, just didn't see Harper as worth a record contract. "Harper is great friends with [first baseman] Freddie Freeman and would have loved Atlanta," says one club source, "but [we] just didn't value him that high."
"Corner outfield is the easiest place to find a bat," says one club president. "He doesn't stand out as much as Machado, a righthanded-hitting third baseman who hits righthanded pitching." Adds another club executive, "At best, [Harper is] an average defensive player. At best."
In Middleton and the Phillies, Boras found a receptive and eager audience. Philadelphia, the second-biggest one-team MLB market (behind only Dallas--Fort Worth), was a sleeping giant. The Phils had suffered six straight losing seasons. Their attendance, though up slightly last season, was down 1.6 million people from their peak in 2010 (3.8 million). When Middleton opened the free-agent season by declaring his team not only had money to spend but also "maybe even a little bit stupid about it," Boras had his mark. The agent has excelled in getting owners to make emotional buys, but that tact has withered in recent years as whip-smart general managers wrested buying control with their cold, analytics-based decision-making.
Middleton, 64, bought a 15% stake in the Phillies in 1994 for $18 million. He assumed a more active role in the club in 2014, when CEO Dave Montgomery took a medical leave. By November 2016 he was named the team's designated control person to MLB. Last year he worked out a March deal for another Boras client, righthander Jake Arrieta. This time Boras had not just numbers to sell but also a drawing card. Boras told Middleton how Harper helped the Nats improve their attendance by 600,000, triple their TV audience and increase their franchise value fourfold.
The first time Middleton met Harper, in January, he was impressed that Harper essentially ran the meeting himself. (In Philadelphia, Machado had let his agent handle most of the discussion.) After Harper rattled off details of Philly's 2008 World Series win—he was a catcher at Las Vegas High then—and described how pitchers attack him, Middleton told Boras, "I've been around a lot of professional players, but I've never seen a player who could talk about the game with such specific recall. This guy is different."
Boras's next job was to convince the Phillies that his client would hold up over more than 10 years. Harper, he told them, was a Mormon who didn't drink or smoke and who was both a baseball rat and a gym rat. Phillies manager Gabe Kapler, who attended the first meeting, is a fitness fanatic who engaged Harper in discussions about training, nutrition and fitness. Two sources familiar with the meeting, however, said that Harper was turned off by Kapler's intensity. Boras disputed that notion, saying, "They talked, they hit it off. They were two peas in a pod."
Then Boras brought out his numbers. As much as he dislikes the modern faith in numbers—he likes to say baseball is headed toward "the analytical abyss"—he was an early devotee, selling his clients to teams based on projections from his own army of statisticians. Two things about Harper, Boras said, predict that he will be an elite hitter well through his 30s: his ability to get on base at such a young age and to crush fastballs.
Harper's OBP of .388 ranks sixth among all players with at least 900 games through their age-25 season. The five ahead of him: Jimmie Foxx, Mickey Mantle, Ty Cobb, Mel Ott and Trout. As for hitting fastballs, Harper has the freakish ability to look for breaking balls and adjust to velocity—the opposite of almost every other batter. The average major league fastball is 93 mph. Against above-average four-seamers last year (94 mph and greater) Harper had the fourth-best slugging percentage (.695). Over the past four years he ranks 11th in slugging against high velocity (.551).
Harper has hit 14 home runs at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, more than at any other road stadium. He has slugged .564 there, the highest in the ballpark's 16-year history (minimum 200 plate appearances). His new teammate, first baseman Rhys Hoskins, ranks second (.562).
It all seemed like the right fit. But Boras knew something was missing: competition.
LATE IN the afternoon on Feb. 24, owner Mark Walter, president and CEO Stan Kasten, president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman and manager Dave Roberts jumped into Friedman's SUV at the Dodgers' spring training complex in Glendale, Ariz.
"All of sudden they went off in a hurry and they were out of here," recalls one witness. They were catching a flight to Las Vegas. The competition was about to get serious.
The Dodgers had been playing a stealth game with Harper's camp, staying out of the headlines but making their interest known to Harper and Boras. They "talked with them off and on all throughout the winter," says a source familiar with their strategy. But L.A. never discussed the kind of long-term offer Harper wanted.
Even though Harper had instructed Boras to get a contract that effectively would keep him with one team for the rest of his career, the agent kept the Dodgers engaged. He had called them "four or five days" before the Feb. 24 meeting. They jetted off to Vegas because, according to a club source, Boras finally "cracked the door on that concept"—a short-term, high-AAV deal.
When the news broke that L.A. had met with Boras and Harper, the Giants reacted with their offer. CEO Larry Baer and president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi were next to jet into McCarran, two days later, for their second meeting there with the Harper camp in two weeks.
It had taken four months and 20 trips to Las Vegas from his Orange County base, but now Boras had the auction atmosphere that creates market value in free agency. He had two rivals in the game, with the Dodgers willing to set a record for AAV and the Giants willing to go past 10 years. Now he could go back to Middleton to get those last three years that would give Harper the all-time record for most money guaranteed to a player. The Phillies no longer were bidding against themselves.
They began the winter wanting to get either Machado or Harper. Machado was off the board after the Padres went higher than Philly GM Matt Klentak was willing to go—10 years, $300 million. Now Boras was giving the Phils a clear opening at Harper: Hit the number and he's yours. The $330 million over 13 years works out to a net present value of about $241 million. That's still 31% greater than what the Nationals offered.
"A third of a billion dollars for one player is unbelievable," says one GM. "You have to start there. The other thing that stands out is that Harper didn't have preferences. What if he had a preferred destination? Would he have taken less money? Or was it about ego and the record? It seemed all he cared about was breaking the record."
Harper's Bazaar is what Boras called the wooing of Harper back in November. Boras met with eight teams since the start of February, 10 since December. Spring training camps had been open for two weeks by the time Harper finally signed. And when he did, he joined the perceived front-runner, with a ballpark that allows him to build on his career home run total of 184—12th among all players through their age-25 season—in a major market.
This is what Harper sought: to chase records, chase titles, chase endorsements and chase a legacy with one team rather than becoming a baseball nomad. And this, too: more money in one contract than has ever been handed over to a ballplayer. A decade in the making, he got what he wanted.
Two of the largest deals in sports history belong to MLB free agents who signed in February
11 fights, five years
Phillies, 13 years
Marlins, 13 years
Padres, 10 years
* Numbers in millions