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May 6, 2011 / Nat Anacostia

Getting Bryce Harper to the Majors

From a long-run perspective, the most important Nationals story of the first few weeks of this season is that Bryce Harper is tearing up the South Atlantic League. Through 26 games, Harper’s batting line is .368/.466/.724, with 17 of his 32 hits going for extra bases, including 7 home runs.  His 1.190 OPS leads the league, ahead of players most of whom are two to five years older.

The title of this post is a bit misleading, because I don’t have much to say about what needs to happen to get him to the majors.  He needs to see more advanced pitchers and to work on his strikeouts. (16 walks and 20 strikeouts in 103 plate appearances isn’t bad, but those ratios generally get worse as a player moves up the ladder.)  While he’s not ready for the majors yet, I don’t think he’s that far away.

When should a top prospect advance to the majors? If factors like years of team control and  eligibility for super two arbitration didn’t weigh in, I’d say the prospect should advance as soon as he’s demonstrated that he’s better than the player he’s replacing.  In Harper’s case, that’s Michael Morse, which isn’t too high a bar.  In reality, though, the team has a strong incentive to slow the process down, hoping to extend a year of eligibility or at least to avoid super two arbitration.

We saw those financial incentives in effect last year with Stephen Strasburg.  Coming out of spring training in 2010, I don’t think there was any question that Strasburg was major-league ready—indeed, he was already the best pitcher in the Nationals organization. Nevertheless, the story went out that a stint in the nimors was “needed” for his development (as if Harrisburg and Syracuse could teach him anything that he couldn’t learn in the majors), and everyone winked, knowing that the only real reasons were to give the team another year of service and to avoid super two arbitration.

If we lived in a world where those considerations didn’t matter (like the world that existed before free agency), I think it’s conceivable that Harper could be ready for the majors by late summer.  I would have him skip high A and go straight to class AA.  If he adapted well and produced, say an OPS of .950+ over 200+ plate appearances at AA without his strikeout/walk ratio deteriorating too badly, I would be ready to move him up  to a full-time position with the big-league club. Mike Rizzo has made it clear, however, that Harper won’t be in the big leagues this year. Considering the relevant financial incentives, I don’t think the Nationals will consider advancing him to the majors before June 2012, thereby guaranteeing team control at least through 2018 and avoiding super two arbitration.

Now some blog discussions get a bit carried away with the idea of holding players back for strategic purposes.  While sabermetrics may indicate that the “optimal” strategy is to keep Harper in the minors until his age 23 season, even minor league players are not chattel. While the public is willing to let teams delay advancing a player for perhaps half a season, they would not allow a team to keep a major league-ready player down for years.

It’s clear that Harper himself wants to get to the majors as soon as possible.  If it could happen without hurting the team, I think almost all the fans would like that too. I know I’d rather have had Strasburg pitch those first 11 games for the Nats than for Harrisburg and Syracuse. Young prospects are exciting, especially for a team with little to root for except a hope in the future. I think that even the team, if the financial considerations could be worked around, would prefer to get their hot prospects up as soon as they’re ready—after all, it means more fans in the seats.

This gets me (at last) to the point of this article. When both parties to a contract (Harper and the Nationals) want something, but can’t arrange for it to happen, there’s an inefficiency. And I think that inefficiency could have been avoided if his contract had been written differently. While I’m not any kind of expert on player contracts, it seems to me that a contract could have been designed to remove the team’s incentives to slow the player’s progress.

Let’s say the team would prefer to keep control over the player until 2019, but the player wants to make the majors as soon as possible. Why not have a contract that gives the team options for the 2017 through 2019 seasons at a pre-negotiated salary. To compensate the player for potentially giving up a year or two of free agency, the team may have to kick in some additional guaranteed money for the player. It seems like some kind of contract along these lines could be mutually beneficial and help the young player get what he most wants—an unimpeded path to the majors.

Why haven’t these kind of contracts been negotiated already? I suspect the reason is that the agents (Scott Boras in the case of Harper) are concerned about how it might look to their other clients. Even though Harper might be delighted to give up a year or two of free agency in exchange for a quicker path to the majors, the agent’s other clients might see it as giving up too much to the team. I think this type of contract innovation would most likely have to come from a new agent, one who can focus on the aspirations of players who’ve been drafted, rather than on the more experienced players.

Wall Street and business schools have a plenty of experts on designing complex contracts to meet the needs of both parties. I hope that some of them can tackle the problem of designing contracts for newly drafted players to avoid baseball’s peculiar incentive to slow the advancement of its most promising young players.

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