The End Of An Era: Harper Bids Adieu To His “Second Home”


Heading into 2019, Bryce Harper and fellow superstar Manny Machado seemingly waited for the other to sign a lucrative contract. Nearly four months after the World Series, it was Machado who drew first blood. First reported by ESPN’s Jeff Passan, the deal is worth $300 million for ten years with the San Diego Padres, the same price and duration that Harper refused in D.C. Though it cut into Spring Training, his patience would, literally, pay off. Just nine days later, the Philadelphia Phillies inked him to a 13-year/$330 million contract. In addition to containing no opt-out or trade clauses, it surpassed Giancarlo Stanton’s deal of the same length by $5 million to become the richest contract in the history of team sports.

The Face of a Franchise

It’s April 28th, 2012. The day the baseball world has waited for almost two years to arrive. Nineteen year-old phenom Bryce Harper gets the start for skipper Davey Johnson’s Washington Nationals in left field, batting seventh. The rookie goes 1-3, producing a two-out double and a game-tying sacrifice fly in the ninth inning. It’s only the beginning of something amazing about to take place in Southeast D.C.

Fast forward almost seven years and Harper is up for free agency. In 927 regular season games with the Nationals, he hit .279, crushed 184 longballs, knocked in 521 runs, and scored 610. He was named to six All Star Games (2012-13, 2015-18), won a Silver Slugger (2015), and earned National League Rookie of the Year (2012) and Most Valuable Player honors (2015). But after four defeats in the National League Division Series, Harper and his agent, Scott Boras, decided it was time to test the free agent market.

Now, the Fightin’ Phils’ former division rival is their new franchise player, and there are certainly some hard feelings in Washington. After seven years and four division titles, the Nationals’ former first-overall draft pick could torment them throughout the 2020s in a Phillies lineup reminiscent of their 2008 championship team.

Fear the Phillies?

History teacher, baseball coach, and eastern Pennsylvania native Mark Klucharich said that the Phils are “ALL IN.” after a busy offseason culminating with the Harper signing. Coach Jayme Murray added, “to bring a title back to D.C.” making reference to the slip-up Harper made at his introductory press conference.

Nationals fans, however, remain confident that the Phillies won’t win the NL East. Senior Ryan Odegard acknowledged the Atlanta Braves as the bigger threat. “I’d have to see more from their starters aside from (Aaron) Nola to see them as the favorites.” For context, the Cy Young finalist Nola led the Phillies’ pitching staff in wins (17), earned runs average (2.37), strikeouts (224) and innings pitched (212.1). Second in those categories were 11 wins, a 3.96 ERA, 188 K and 172.2 IP. Compare that to the more well-rounded Braves staff, and it’s easy to see why they won the East last season.

What about Washington?

“You can’t count the Nats out with the much improved roster.” noted Odegard.

But they let Bryce walk! How did they improve? Obviously, they were outspent by Philadelphia this winter, but they made significant additions in Patrick Corbin, Brian Dozier, Yan Gomes, and Trevor Rosenthal among others.

Some, like senior Sean Murphy, will make the argument that he wasn’t even worth paying for. “Harper hasn’t performed like he did in his MVP season,” he noted. “He played himself by staying in the same division because all the other teams have deep scouting reports on him.” To his point, before he was crowned the National League’s Most Valuable Player at the end of 2015, his career batting average stood at .289 to go along with his unmatched power. In the three years since then, he has only hit .267. His power numbers are up, but the world knows he is capable of hitting .330.

And consider the intangibles. Said Murphy, “He’s got too big of an ego and I’m glad his personality is out of our clubhouse.” Wherever he goes, the boo birds are there to greet him, and it’s difficult to imagine that his impending free agency wasn’t weighing on his and the team’s performance last season.

How is this going over within the Nationals’ fan base?

As many Nats fans know, Harper hasn’t been shy to speak fondly of the city, the organization, or each of the last three skippers he has played for. So for senior and longtime Harper superfan Jenna Mulvihill, the news came as a shot through the heart. “I’m definitely upset with Harper,” she said. “I just felt betrayed after all this time calling D.C. home.”

Even though there’s no shortage of emotional attachment, fans knew his departure was inevitable. Murphy offered, “Ever since he denied our (10-year/$300 million) extension I accepted that he was gone.” Mulvihill added that she “wasn’t surprised that Bryce wanted this,” but that anywhere else would have been better than Philly.

Others such as Odegard are able to retain some respect for the six-time all-star, citing that “it’s a business,” and that “he deserves to get paid big money.” Boras drilled this into suitors’ heads all winter long, pointing to his abilities to raise ratings and instantly vitalize the city he plays in. Over the last five seasons, the Phillies have not been able to crack 30,000 fans per game, each time falling in the bottom six among NL parks. Citizens Bank Park can hold over 43,000, so average crowds have only been filling 53-70% of seats.

The AAV was higher in D.C., why didn’t he take that?

It is important to remember that the Lerners, the primary owners of the club, operate much differently than other ownership groups around baseball, explained here by Barry Svrluga. The key word in the phrase “average annual value” is “average”. The AAV on the offer was $30 million, but the Nationals do not pay large contracts punctually. Svrluga points out that if Harper agreed to the deal, the Lerners would be paying him for the next four decades.

The contract he agreed to carries an AAV of a little over $25.4 million, so if it were the true average that would easily surpass the Nats’ offer. But to entice him even more, the Phillies have front-loaded the contract, as detailed by Spotrac. He will make $30 million this season, and by the end of his contract he will only be making $22 million annually.

What now?

For the first time since 2012, the Nationals will not have Bryce Harper in their Opening Day lineup. They have never reached the postseason without him, and this season they will have to defeat his Phillies to get there. General Manager Mike Rizzo indicated in an interview with the Sports Junkies that he “will high five him or hug him when I see him and then I’m gonna want to beat his [expletive]”, and the fans are echoing his call.

“It’d be nice to clinch the division and make him regret leaving.” said Odegard, claiming that the money will better saved for Anthony Rendon and Trea Turner, who are entering the final years of their contracts. “He wanted this deal just so he could have the biggest contract,” Murphy pointed out, “so yeah, what Rizzo said.”

The Nationals begin their season on March 28 at home against the New York Mets, and will welcome Harper and the Phillies just five short days from then. Philadelphia will also be in Washington April 3, June 17-19, and September 23-26.