Grinding Gears: Long-term deals are a bad idea for MLB teams

Bryce Harper had 330 million reasons to spend the next 13 years in Philadelphia. Manny Machado had 300 million reasons to take the freeway down to San Diego. Nolan Arenado had 260 million reasons to stay in Denver.

In the span of a week — after an off-season of stagnancy and quality players remaining on the market — we saw record contracts posted across the board in Major League Baseball. Arenado stayed with the Rockies and became the highest-paid position player per year at nearly $33 million, Machado became the first to eclipse the $300 million mark with the Padres and Harper went to the Phillies with the largest contract for a baseball player — ever. 

Together, the three contracts add up to nearly $900 million, which is equivalent to the value of the entire Tampa Bay Rays franchise, and, for some reason, the net worth of Kylie Jenner. 

So what makes these players worthy of Kardashian-level wealth? Obviously, the ability to hit a baseball very well and very far. There are few players in baseball that induce a buzz over the crowd when they step up to the plate. You pay to watch generational talents like Harper, Machado and Arenado go up to bat. You buy their jerseys, vote them onto All-Star teams, marvel at their skillsets.

From that perspective, it is easy to defend an owner handing over a fortune to entice a superstar to join or stay with a franchise. The capability to puff out their chests and say, “You’re damn right: I’m rich beyond imagination, we just signed Bryce Harper, and your team didn’t,” is powerful. It is a franchise-changing, legacy-defining decision that forever links owner to player, player to city and owner to city. 

The catch-22, though, is this: None of those players are worth the contracts they signed. Not even close. They might be if you add sponsorships, endorsements and other extracurricular funds. But $330 million in guaranteed money, to swing a bat? For 13 years? Come on. 

In 13 years, Bryce Harper will be 39 years old. Think about how old you will be and what you might be doing in 13 years. Imagine it’s the year 2031 — four presidential election cycles later — Harper will still be making $23.5 million on the same contract he signed in 2019. Somebody born today will be a teenager before Harper stops reeling in checks. This contract is going to hit puberty. 

Harper will not be worth $23.5 million at the end his contract. Machado will not be worth $30 million a year at 36 years old and neither will a 34-year-old Arenado. But they are not being paid to be good in their late 30s. They are being paid to be good now. To have their services in their prime years, teams are willing to overpay tremendously in the latter years. 

At best, this is instant gratification. At worst, it is reckless decision-making. When you break the bank for one player, when you push all your chips into the center of the table and lean on one person to make it all pay off, it is a wild gamble. Injuries happen. Issues arise. The unexpected occurs, and suddenly all is lost. And yeah, when players get older, they are no longer as good. There is no insurance plan, no backup, no waiver. A 39-year-old Bryce Harper will make $23.5 million, whether he is still an MVP-caliber player or a benchwarmer who can no longer hit. 

And here is the thing: Do you think Harper really wanted to sign with the Phillies? Was there something so special about Philadelphia that he could not see himself elsewhere? He reportedly had lucrative offers from the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers to live in California, be rich and play baseball. But the proposals were not as good as $330 million for 13 years. Simply put, Harper waited past the Winter Meetings, past the new year, past the start of spring training and into the last day of February for a team desperate and stupid enough to offer him a deal he could not resist. Good for him. Shame on the team. 

For Harper, that team was the Phillies. For Machado, it was the Padres. Both franchises were eager to attract star talent, to draw attention and to bring fans to the stadium. Never mind that for $300 or $330 million, they could have signed three or four different free agents who might collectively provide more value than one player alone — with the added benefit that if one of those players suffers a career-threatening injury, the franchise isn’t over. 

But doing that is not as sexy as adding a Harper or a Machado. And so, here begins an unnecessary, decade-plus roll of the dice. Good luck with that.

Eric He is a senior writing about current events in sports. He is also the features editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Grinding Gears,” runs Mondays.