November 12, 2019

How Has Bryce Harper’s Contract Impacted Mookie Betts’ Quest for a New Deal?

March 2, 2019 by · Leave a Comment 

The recent signing of free-agent outfielder Bryce Harper to a record-breaking 13-year, $330 million contract by the Philadelphia Phillies sent shock waves across baseball. Although the star slugger will continue making his home in the National League, the deal may have a surprising impact on the Boston Red Sox—specifically in their pursuit to retain their soon-to-be free agent star Mookie Betts.

The reigning American League MVP and leader of the 2018 World Champions is not eligible to be a free agent until after the 2020 season. However, it’s likely that Boston is already working on how to keep the outfielder in their uniform for the rest of his career.

Betts and Boston avoided arbitration this year, agreeing to a one-year, $20 million pact. He will be eligible for arbitration again next year and then can hit the free agent market following the 2020 season if he cannot come to a long-term agreement beforehand.

The 26-year-old Betts is already on track to be one of the best players in franchise history. A true five-tool talent, he led the league with a .346 batting average in 2018, chipping in 47 doubles, 32 home runs, 80 RBIs, 30 stolen bases and a league-best 129 runs scored. He is also perhaps the best defensive outfielder in the game, patrolling the expansive right field ground at Fenway Park. His superb play led to a 10.9 WAR (BRef) last year and an already impressive total of 35.2 in his four-plus years in the majors.

Unsurprisingly, the Harper signing will impact negotiations when attempting to lock down Betts because of the benchmark it has set in terms of length and total value. Additionally, Harper was able to avoid any deferred money and has a complete no-trade clause, which teams typically are loathe to give. Not only are the two players the same age, one would be hard-pressed to find a serious talent evaluator who would disagree that Betts is the better all-around player.

It would behoove the Red Sox to do everything they can to sign Betts to a lengthy contract now. That will be easier said than done. Although the team has money and chutzpah in spades, Betts and his agent hold all the cards. The current free agent market, which is widely regarded as repressed despite the recent mega deal, may be worth waiting out to see if MLB purse strings become untangled. Additionally, Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout, a similarly talented player, is due to become a free agent at the same time. The ability for teams to bid on two generational-type talents like these two could drive the market up even more and land Betts a deal that could necessitate him to build a Scrooge McDuck style money pit to swim around in during the offseason.

If I’m the Red Sox, I’m doing whatever I can to sign Betts now and not draw this out. Is this something he would even consider? Maybe, but undoubtably he would have to be blown away to give up his soon-to-be earned right to be wooed by all 30 major league teams. Although he is a Boston treasure, he will not, nor should he be expected, to give a hometown discount. He has every reason to expect and to get a record-setting deal of his own.

Would a 13-year, $350 million contract be a good starting point? With the luxury tax in play, any deal of this magnitude has to be creative with how the money is dispersed across seasons. Could such a deal be front loaded (a la Harper’s), so it is more of a 10-year, $300 million deal with an extra three years and $50 million tacked on to account for likely declining years? This would set the contract record and compensate Betts for the lower pay at the end of the contract by buying out his final two arbitration-eligible years at a significant raise.

The Red Sox should have the funds to be able to offer a deal with no deferred money. An ironclad no-trade clause is always a difficult ask to accommodate, given the volatility of consistent player ability over time, but Betts has ascended to the Mount Rushmore of Red Sox history, and if anyone should be given such a consideration, it is him.

The 2019 free agent class does not have anyone who is a likely candidate to surpass Harper’s deal. Thus, it becomes a tantalizing decision for Betts to either try to sign for stupid money now or wait and see if he can get into a situation where really, really stupid money is available a little later. There is no clear answer as to how this will play out. However, one thing is certain and that is that the Harper contract has muddied the waters and raised the stakes for both sides.

Andrew Martin is the founder of “The Baseball Historian” blog where he posts his thoughts about baseball on a regular basis. You can also reach him on Twitter at @historianandrew or on Facebook.

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