Is Bryce Harper Worth the Money?

Bryce Harper, hitting prodigy extraordinaire. Dubbed by Sports Illustrated as the baseball’s Lebron James, Harper is the most hyped prospect since, well, Steven Strasburg, who was drafted just last year. Both players have the tools and the results to be considered worthy of such hysteria.

Steven Strasburg is dominating Triple-A pitching already, and Harper has clubbed 23 homeruns in 198 at-bats as a 17 year old collegiate in a league that plays only with wooden bats. Sure, it’s junior college, but Harper has done nothing to sully his reputation as a prodigious power hitter. The craziest thing about this all is these two super-phenoms could be battery mates in D.C. in the very near future if a.) The Nationals draft him, which it appears that they will, and b.) If Harper can stick at catcher, and many scouts believe that he can.

The Nationals already doled out a record signing of $15.67 million to Strasburg last year, raising some eyebrows among fans and analysts alike, but it was a far cry from the possible Dice-K numbers that he was rumored to be initially seeking. Harper, who is advised by none other than Scott Boras, is rumored to be seeking even more money than Strasburg, according to Jon Heyman. (What? Heyman leaking bonus demands of a Boras client? That’s shocking!)

While it seems astounding to us average Joes that a kid not old enough to vote would receive such big dollars, is it really that nuts for a player drafted 1st overall to get that sort of money?

To answer that question I looked at all the 1-1 picks since the history of the draft. I’m looking just at the players who have played long enough to be judged to this point, so no Strasburg, David Price, Justin Upton, Tim Beckham or Luke Hochevar. Again, I’m looking only at the player’s first seasons in the majors, not when they are free agent eligible. I’m using Rally’s Historical WAR database to get their WAR totals.

Here’s the Top 5 1-1 picks of all time, and what their production would have been worth on today’s free agent market.

Name	      	Pos	HS/COL	      	WAR	WAR/yr.	FA$
Alex Rodriguez	SS	High School	37.5	6.3	153.8
Ken Griffey 	OF	High School	35.2	5.9	144.3
Joe Mauer       C	High School   	33.1    5.9     135.7
Chipper Jones	SS	High School	26.8	4.5	109.9
Dar. Strawberry	OF	High School	26.7	4.5	109.5

It’s attention-grabbing to me that all of these hitters came out of high school. And of course, they were all really, really good. If Harper can come even close to any of these select few, he’ll be worth his bonus many times over.

Now getting beyond the fun, superlative stuff, 45% of the #1 overall picks have produced nothing or next to nothing in the big leagues. Averaging all the 1st picks together, you get 9.5 WAR, or 1.6 WAR per season. We are talking about just 40 players, so standard deviation for the group is 1.8 WAR per season, in case you were wondering.

If we estimate that a player worth 1.6 WAR per season will earn about $13 million before they hit free agency (factoring in the 40%, 60%, 80% arbitration estimates and league minimum pay), we find that said player is worth a surplus value of around $26 million. So while handing out a bonus of $15 million puts a good sized dent in that surplus, that’s still a considerable surplus left over.

For all the moralizing and hem-hawing that #1 draft picks are vastly overpaid, I’d argue that they are a relative value. Sure, there is a good bit of risk involved, but when you glance at the overall picture, the #1 overall picks on an average have been worth their scratch. If Bryce Harper is worth only a fraction of the hype he’s received, he’ll be well worth whatever the record signing money he receives.



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Erik Manning is the founder of Future Redbirds and covers the Cardinals for Heater Magazine. You can get more of his analysis and rantings in bite-sized bits by following him on twitter.


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Kenny
Guest
Kenny

A.) Yes, he’s worth it. Stephen Strasburg AA and AAA numbers astound me. Harpers college numbers astound me times 10. He’s a better hitting prospect than Strasburg is a pitching prospect.

B.) I don’t get all the hoo-hawing about MLB bonuses when they are so small compared to NFL rookie contracts. Yes, I know that MLB is more of a gamble in the first round, and that player could be Matt Bush, and they have some 50 players to sign and blah blah blah. But $15 million dollars? We are really concerned about that? And MLB teams are REALLY that concerned about that? And in reality we are talking about the team usually being within a million of what the drafted player wants when there are disputes and they decide NOT to sign the player, i.e. Aaron Crow? Give me a break. If you don’t sign the player to an extension, then you are talking about paying a guy like Evan Longoria 400k a year plus whatever bonus he got. Meanwhile Matthew Stafford is the highest paid player in football and we are REALLY that concerned with $15 million for a pitcher like Strasburg who once he makes the majors will immediately be worth $15 million a year? It just dumbfounds me sometimes. And we are only talking about 1 player. The 2-5 million bonuses for top 10 picks are chump change. I don’t know how Kansas City and other small market teams can sign players like Jose Guillen for 8 figures and then worry about their draft picks, i.e. THEIR FUTURE!

Zack
Guest
Zack

While the NFL contracts are ridiculous, trying to compare the 2 drafts is apples/oranges.

Kenny
Guest
Kenny

Yes, but my MAIN point is that John Maine will be a free agent after this season and probably will get paid ridiculously more over the next 6 years than Bryce Harper, who should be ridiculously better.

I don’t think the top pick in the MLB draft should get $50 million, I think the contracts are probably about right, I’m just sick of the two sides bickering about it.

Zack
Guest
Zack

So because the NFL has to pay top guys a lot of money, MLB shouldnt complain about the bonuses they hand out?

Wally
Guest
Wally

Kenny, I absolutely agree. The only reason you see owners/GMs or whoever, complaining is because they can. MLB has monopoly on professional baseball, more than that, one team ends up with exclusive rights to sign a draft pick.

If the draft were eliminated and everyone just became a FA on their 18th birthday (or when ever they decided to), we’d see bigger contracts rolled out in a heart beat. In a free market Strasburg probably does end up getting more money than Dice-K got, or at least close.

It would be nice to see some sort of legal battle over the amateur drafts in professional sports. Or even better, how cool would it be to see an entire draft class boycott the draft? It would possibly be at huge costs to individual players, so maybe it would be more reasonable for all players not graduating college to hold out.

I just think its tremendously unfair for teams to be able to profit so greatly from these young players who’s salaries are artificially deflated to the tune of tens of millions of dollars.

Lintyfresh
Guest

Thanks, Scott Boras.

Kenny
Guest
Kenny

There are so, so, so, so, so, so many problems with the MLB draft.

Ty
Guest
Ty

The reason they complain is because they get to use the term “relative”. If what they’re being asked for is not relatively close to the next highest-paid-player, then it’s leverage to pay great players less. Once one team breaks the bank, they open up the flood gates for the rest of the league to hit the jackpot. Like you said, it’s a monopoly if all of the owners manage to NOT cave on the big ticket.

George
Guest
George

“If the draft were eliminated and everyone just became a FA on their 18th birthday (or when ever they decided to), we’d see bigger contracts rolled out in a heart beat.”

Damn Yankees fans.

joser
Guest
joser

I don’t follow the NFL, but I don’t believe those rookie contracts are guaranteed, are they? If not, then teams aren’t on the hook for the ones that wash out (and since college is the AAA of the NFL, it would seem far fewer rookies wash out without providing at least some value in games that matter).

Kevin S.
Member
Kevin S.

There’s a certain portion of the contract that is guaranteed. For example, Stafford got a six-year, $72 million deal, $42 million of which was guaranteed money. Of course, it’s highly unlikely that a pick that high, barring catastrophic injury, would get cut loose quickly. Even JaMarcus Russell, a horrific bust from day one, lasted three years of collecting checks.

Kenny
Guest
Kenny

Yeah, they still get more guaranteed money than proven players.

Zack
Guest
Zack

It’s not 100% guaranteed. But the top pick gets north of 40m guaranteed, and that’s more than any FA gets.

Will
Guest
Will

You make some good points, but you are simply wrong to claim that Harper is “a better hitting prospect than Strasburg is a pitching prospect.”

Many intelligent people were claiming that Strasburg was the best pitching prospect ever. I have yet to see anyone claim that Harper is even close to one of the best hitting prospects of the past decade, much less ever.

JayCee
Guest
JayCee

Honestly, I don’t recall that extreme being said about Strasburg. In fact, I think the hype for David Price in terms of “best ever” was more intense. Strasburg generated a lot of hype due to baseball making more of an effort to hype its draft, for one. Not to deny SS was considered by most scouts to be a “generational-type” talent.

The Bunk
Guest
The Bunk

Then you must have been ignoring the hype, Strasburg really is the most hyped pitcher of the last 20 years. David Price had hype but not Strasburg hype.

Kevin S.
Member
Kevin S.

I don’t recall anybody suggesting Price should get a $50 million contract.

Will
Guest
Will

They covered Strasburg’s college starts on SportsCenter and even broadcasted his start in the CWS on ESPNews. And that was BEFORE he was drafted.

I’ve yet to see any coverage of Bryce Harper, and don’t recall ever seeing anything about David Price until he was drafted.

A DC Wonk
Member
A DC Wonk

Will, you’ve “yet to see any coverage of Bryce Harper”? He was on the cover of SI as a 16 year old! The day after the the Nats drafted Strasburg last year, prospect-nuts starting calling the following year the “Harper-derby”.

Harper (as a 16 yo) hit a 502 ft homer in a HS HR derby, still the longest shot in the history of Tropicana Park. During past weekend’s JuCo world series, he hit for the cycle on Friday, and then on Saturday went 6-for-6 with a double, triple, and 4 HR’s. As a 17 year old in a JuCo league (he skipped his senior year of HS), he led the regular season with 23 homers, and the 2d place guy had only 11. (I’ve heard — but haven’t verified — that he beat the team record in homers — i.e., he alone hit more than any team has previously).

Yes, yes, of course, none of this is a guarantee for the future. But his stats this year has been living up to the hype.

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