Friday, March 11, 2011

Rebutting the Bryce Harper Argument

First off, it's a foregone conclusion that the Washington Nationals will send Bryce Harper to the minors before Spring Training ends. Everyone knows it and everyone expects it. His thirteen at bats have been mostly successful in the Nationals' exhibition games, but we all know those games don't count. Harper has made some gaffes in the field and is pretty new to playing the outfield. Those will be ironed out with more seasoning. But just in case the Nationals were about to lose their heads and keep Harper on the big league team when they head north, Steven Goldman of Baseball Prospectus wrote a terrific piece for listing the economic and professional reasons why the Nationals should stick to their plan. While not doubting the latter argument, there was one piece missing from Goldman's economic argument.

Again, it's hard to argue with Goldman's scholarly argument for the professional reasons stacked against Harper. Certainly, he is correct that Alex Rodriguez, Robin Yount and even Ty Cobb failed to play well at that young an age. Goldman mentions Phil Cavarretta who is the only 18 year-old in history to ever get 500 at bats (589 to be exact) but doesn't mention that Cavarretta also was under league average at that age and wouldn't be a really good player for several more years after his 1934 debut. All of that makes sense. History has no precedent for an 18 year-old having any kind of success in the major leagues. Except that it's always possible to have a first time, isn't it?

Goldman's first argument against Harper going north with the Nationals has no flaws. Baseball has never seen an 18 year-old succeed. It is Goldman's economic argument that leaves questions. And in fairness to Goldman, who is a heck of a lot smarter than this writer, the economic argument would make sense with just about every other young potential superstar. The clock starts ticking when a young player starts playing. Teams can only control a player for six years before that player can choose to play anywhere he wants. Starting the clock at 18 means that by the time Harper is 24, and in position to have his best years, he'll be too expensive at too young an age. Better to start the clock later, argues Goldman, so that the "control" years include really good years. Goldman's big finish:

If the Nats give in to premature Harper-mania, they may sell a few extra seats now, but they will pay for the privilege, and pay, and pay some more, and the main thing they will be accomplishing is fattening up a potential franchise player for another team.

The three points that need to be made in response are first, the Nationals are already paying. Next, we don't know the stipulations Scott Boras might have negotiated with the Nationals for how they handle his young star. And lastly is the notion that the Nationals wouldn't have just as good a chance to keep him when he's a "franchise" player.

Let's get the middle rebuttal out of the way because the Fan doesn't know what he's talking about there. Scott Boras might not have been able to negotiate any "need-to-play" Harper contingencies into the contract. The Fan doesn't know. But if you were the agent for the "next big thing," wouldn't you negotiate that? But who knows.

The last part of the rebuttal is also easy to talk about. The Nationals have no problem spending money. They spent a ton of money on Adam Dunn in the past. They spent a ton of money on Werth and they went WAY over slot on both Strasburg and Harper. To insist that the Nationals will only keep Harper for six years is underestimating the Nationals'  belief and willingness in spending money in their desire to become a legitimate team. To this observer, saying that the Nationals are only going to have Harper in the majors for six years underestimates what the Nationals will do to get where they want to go. They aren't the Marlins or the Royals with no chance of spending big money. Goldman's argument is sound in that you will start paying Harper big money sooner. That's basic economics and one of the most distasteful parts of the business of baseball. Fans are often deprived of seeing better players play instead of what they have at the major league level because of this economic fact.

But the one fly in the ointment of that argument is that the Nationals are already paying Harper. This situation is not like other situations where a team can pay pennies to keep a player in the minors for another season. Bryce Harper is making $10 million over the next five years ($9.9 to be exact). So where is the economic sense of paying a guy $10 million over five years only to have no chance to recoup that money to their benefit? It would seem that paying that much over the next five years would put more economic pressure on the Nationals to speed up the clock, not slow it down.

And say the Nationals do slow that clock down for two years and three years from now Bryce Harper makes a splash. The current deal expires in five years and the likelihood remains that the Nationals will have to sign Harper to a lucrative extension at that point anyway. If Harper turns out as good as most people think he is, he's going to make his money one way or another.

In the Fan's perfect world, the only personnel decisions made should be based on who are the best 25 players in your organization. Harper should play when there is no other outfielder in their system that can out play him. Period. But the Fan understands the whole six years of control thing. It sucks, but it is what it is. In this case with Bryce Harper, those economic decisions might be moot because of the contract he already has and what will probably happen when it expires.

And the Fan will leave you with one unanswered question that nobody seems to ask: Did Robin Yount, Alex Rodriguez, Ty Cobb and Phil Cavarretta succeed despite the hard knocks they had at the age of 18, or because of them?

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