The offseason has been relatively quiet for the defending champion Boston Red Sox, but there’s at least one development on which they should be fairly focused.
The Red Sox will have their eye on Manny Machado’s flirtation with the New York Yankees, but the more important decision might be that of Bryce Harper. That’s because whatever Harper gets ultimately will reset the market for generational players, for players like Red Sox outfielder Mookie Betts.
For better or worse, the Red Sox don’t have to worry about Betts’ free agency until 2021. Some still predict Harper returns to the Washington Nationals, but they probably would have preferred to have it all taken care of by now.
The Red Sox presumably will (and should) make similar attempts with Betts. If the reigning MVP isn’t the best player in baseball, he’s one of the three or four best and will be paid like it — making Harper’s situation especially relevant.
Harper is likely to net a historic contract, especially with agent Scott Boras pulling most of the levers. MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand noted Harper and Boras are “said to be seeking the biggest deal in history” in hopes of eclipsing that of Giancarlo Stanton, currently signed to a 10-year, $325 million pact.
Feinsand also mentions Harper might be looking not only for the richest contract in baseball history but also the most lucrative on a per year basis, a distinction that still belongs to Alex Rodriguez, whose AAV of $27.5 million remains the largest “free agent” contract of all time.
The Nationals’ initial offer — 10 years and $300 million — obviously didn’t get the job done, and Feinsand wonders whether tacking on an extra $25-30 million would. Ten years and $330 million would give Harper (and just as importantly, Boras) the undisputed biggest free agent contract in the sport’s history.
What does that mean for Betts? Truthfully, the only real answer remains “it depends.” There still are so many variables involved, but one certainly could claim Betts is a better player than Harper and should be paid as such.
Over the last four seasons (age 22 through 25 for both), Betts has been worth nearly 33 wins above replacement — almost twice as many as Harper (17.5). Betts has played in more games, has a better batting average (by more than 20 points), more doubles, triples and stolen bases. He trails Harper’s pace in most power categories like home runs and OPS, but actually has driven in the same amount of runs despite spending most of his career hitting leadoff. Both players have MVPs in their trophy cases.
But it’s not that simple, either. There are a number of differences between the two players, most notably being the contract situation. Harper is a free agent open to negotiations with all 30 teams while Betts remains under Red Sox control. So it’s an admittedly imperfect exercise to compare the two players and their situations, at least as it pertains to Betts at this moment, but Harper’s deal certainly will be used as the benchmark if and when Betts reaches free agency.
There is the possibility of an extension before free agency. Mike Trout and his six-year, $144.5 million extension with the Angels seems like a good starting point. That’s different, too, though, because Trout was still a full season away from arbitration and four full playing seasons away from free agency. The Angels set up Trout for life before they had to, and he repaid them by giving up a few years of free agency. But he was younger, 22, and the Angels ensured that Trout not only would make more than $100 million over the final three years of the deal but also allowing him to enter free agency before age 30.
In regards to Trout’s free agency and Betts, there’s also this:
Again, that’s in free agency, not a contract extension. But doesn’t it just feel like Betts, who went to arbitration with the Red Sox a year ago, is destined for free agency?
If that ultimately is the case, the Red Sox are going to have to pony up to retain his services. Even in this day and age where it seems like inactivity across the league is driving down the price of big-name free agents, we can safely assume Betts will have a chance to break any and all records set this winter by Harper — despite the fact he’ll have two more seasons under his belt.
That should make the Red Sox and all of baseball curious to see what happens with Harper in the upcoming days and weeks.