What A-Rod taught us about Bryce Harper

 nbcsports.com  12/7/2018 3:33:30 PM  2

Say this number out loud: 252.

It flows, book ended by the same numerals. Simple enough to speak. It still bounces around in baseball lore, lodged in the brains of former general managers and all those stunned 18 years ago when it made Alex Rodriguez the richest athlete in North American sports history. By a lot. Twice as much, in fact. Kevin Garnett’s fire had earned him $126 million. He was tops. Rodriguez’s talent and angling agent combined with an overzealous owner to double Garnett’s contract. The league gasped. Rodriguez smiled. 

Rodriguez entered the league as an 18-year-old. Two years later, he won a batting a title and began to move toward his historic salary. After four All-Star appearances and two near-misses in MVP voting, Rodriguez went onto the open market, a sterling 24-year-old who hit homers while playing shortstop and making marketers swoon.

This winter presents the first near-replication of that situation, which acts as a blueprint and warning of what could happen with Bryce Harper. Harper has finally reached free agency. He’s here in the financial wilderness living what has been discussed for so long. Spring training and any visit from a New York team brought the topic up. He tired of it. So much so, his opening press conference of 2018 came with a threat. In the tight space that doubles as a conference at the Nationals spring training complex in West Palm Beach, Fla., Harper looked up and gestured toward the door he entered through minutes earlier. If asked about his pending free agency, he would walk right back out of it.

As December begins, Harper is running in a parallel state to that of Rodriguez following the 2000 season. He’s the rare free agent who came to the big leagues as a teenager and arrived on the open market before his peak years. His 144 OPS-plus the last five seasons mirrors Rodriguez’s 143 from 1996-2000. Agent Scott Boras is at the negotiation controls. He’s dropping the word “iconic” to anyone who will listen. This is a rare opportunity, he will opine, and he will be right. This level of exchange, with a player at this age, this level of talent, these prospects for publicity hasn’t been seen since Rodriguez decided he was leaving Seattle. 

“These kind of negotiations do not happen every year,” former Texas Rangers general manager Doug Melvin told NBC Sports Washington.

He should know. Melvin was in charge when Rodriguez turned the baseball world on its head after writing his name on a flat line of a document that contained that number: 252.

***

Baseball moves under Las Vegas’ lights next week. The city on its own can contort reality, lay the foundation for regret and serve as an antidote to common sense. Dallas absorbed these traits in 2000 when hosting to the Winter Meetings.

Tom Hicks bought the Texas Rangers two years before the Winter Meetings arrived his town. He built wealth through his venture capital group Hicks & Haas before overseeing an investment firm, furthering his cash flow. 

Melvin was in his seventh year as the Rangers general manager when Boras and Rodriguez hit the free agency trail. He was generally conservative when it came to spending. Length of contract concerned him for multiple reasons. A player could lose his motivation after landing an enormous deal. If the player was hurt, the contract could preclude an organization from finding a suitable in-season replacement. The overall value, year after year, had a chance to stifle future free agent moves. Hicks encouraged him to be open.

Possible landing spots for Rodriguez began with the coasts and his former employer, Seattle. Would he go to Los Angeles? New York? Boston? Or would Seattle, who had traded Ken Griffey Jr., find the money to retain Rodriguez?

Pat Gillick knew he was walking into a challenge when he took the job in Seattle following the 1999 season. In front of him were two epic decisions. His predecessor, Woody Woodward, bungled the team’s contract management. Griffey Jr. and Rodriguez were set to be becoming free agents after the 2000 season. Gillick put on a good face at his introductory press conference, saying they wanted to re-sign both. Though, Griffey wanted out and Rodriguez wanted everything.

The Mariners wondered if there was an allure of familiarity. They drafted and developed Rodriguez. He excelled in their city. They formulated a plan: Offer Rodriguez up to five years. Provide a bountiful average annual value. 

In New York, Mets general manager Steve Phillips began to talk with Boras. They were not in an official negotiation window when Boras laid out necessities on top of the money in a conversation Phillips says took place at the general managers meetings. 

“He had said they were looking for a 10-year deal and looking for outs in the contract, a couple of outs during the contract,” Phillips told NBC Sports Washington. “He wanted a couple of opt outs in there, I don’t remember if he referenced the third year, the sixth year of the deal. He wanted a couple of opt outs. That part was clear. Then he said, he are some other things that have to be part of a deal because it’s part of what he either had in Seattle or other teams said they’d be willing to give... Alex really wants in the deal. 

“It was a tent at spring training to sell A-Rod apparel and merchandise. It was suites at the stadium. It was an office at the stadium for his marketing representative so then the marketing representative after the game could bring people down from the suite and bring them into the clubhouse to see Alex. They wanted use of the team logo. They wanted a jet, a private jet available for him because he couldn’t fly commercial anymore. He wanted to meet with the marketing department to know how they were going to market him. He wanted to see the scouting reports for the prospects in the organization to see what depth of talent that was going to play with him. I walked out of that meeting with my head spinning a little bit because I thought, ‘I can’t do that.’”

Boras disputed Phillips’ version of the demands (Phillips says, “If I misunderstood Scott, maybe I did, but I came out of there with a belief that those things had to be part of the deal,” then mentions Boras never called to clarify once Phillips’ view became public). Phillips outlined his conversation with Boras to Mets ownership, then announced a short time later the Mets, who Rodriguez grew up rooting for, were out. 

Meanwhile, Hicks, Boras and Rodriguez were working toward a deal.

***

Gillick hoped Rodriguez would stay. The Mariners absorbed the loss of Griffey well. They won 91 games without him, sending out a powerhouse offense to counter a mediocre starting rotation. Rodriguez delivered a potent 10.4 WAR season. Seattle lost the American League Championships Series in six games after edging into the playoffs as the wild-card team, finishing a half-game out of the American League West Division lead. Ichiro arrived the next season, though no one could have predicted at the time the stunning impact which would come with him.

The Mariners thought familiarity benefited them. They were willing to spend money. Gillick viewed Boras as a fair enough negotiator that a return could occur. 

“I think usually, I’m not speaking for Scott, he does a good job of keeping his clients informed of the process,” Gillick told NBC Sports Washington. “If you become a free agent, I think there’s the opportunity which he would say to go back to the team that you originally signed with or you were with. If you were happy there, to go back. But at least we have an obligation to find out what the market is. If you’re former team wants to pay you the market price and you prefer to go back there, you will. And the other hand, if your former team doesn’t wish to go the length or average value per year, we have to look at where it best fits.”

Gillick considered his options. He, like Melvin, was wary of the contract length. Gillick works under the thought a team knows the maximum average annual value and length it is willing to absorb before negotiations begin. 

“And once you reach that point, you just can’t go any further,” Gillick said. “You’re not dealing with one player. You’re dealing with maybe the whole team. You’re dealing with players in the future. If people know that your situation is you’re only going to go a certain amount of years, that kind of gets around the industry. It’s important you be consistent with the players you deal with. I don’t think you can go overboard and give somebody 10 years when really your max might be three or five.”

Everyone outside of Boras tried to decipher who was truly in in an attempt to unmask the infamous “mystery team”. They are created in media reports or internal industry rumors. They can even be created in a GM’s own mind.

“It’s very difficult to find out what other teams are involved,” Melvin said. “Other teams may get you involved in your division so that you’re raising the ante and spending some of your resources and that.”

Some believed the Dodgers had negotiated against themselves to make pitcher Kevin Brown baseball’s first $100 million player in 1998. All were wary here about other conversations, reading reports, asking around, trying for clarity through the smoke. Only Hicks and the Rangers mattered in the end.

***

The reactions to $252 million deal were swift. Sandy Alderson, working for Major League Baseball at the time was appalled and condemned the deal. Gillick and Phillips were surprised and stunned, respectively.

“We just kind of got blown out of the water,” Gillick said.

“Scott set out to try to set a record and he made it about the deal, and he wanted to settle the highest professional sports contract ever, and somehow he was able to get the Rangers to agree to do that and go to the 252,” Phillips said. “Because it wasn’t like they were trying to get an extra million because somebody else was at 250. So, somehow, they agreed to get involved and doubled the biggest deal ever.”

Melvin had a flood of feelings. His owner decided to make this investment, which delivered the best player in baseball onto the Rangers’ roster. That pleased him. The length concerned him some, though he figured Rodriguez would not stay the entire 10 years. He was able to get over his irritation that an agent had gone over him and straight to an owner, something Phillips would strongly push back against for fear of what would happen. 

“So there was a lot of excitement in that regard, but then when you’re around all the other general managers, [later] going into a GMs meeting, I was anguishing a little bit,” Melvin said. “Other GMs are saying, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ You know, ‘This is going to affect us. How are we going to find players?’ I felt a little squirmish, I guess, in that regard.” 

Boras is on the hunt for this year’s Hicks. He again has a rare client -- “iconic” if you ask him -- to break another record with. They already declined a $300 million contract. Giancarlo Stanton’s $325 million extension appears to be the low bar for Harper’s math. He just presumably wants fewer years and more money. Boras is arguing value from the batter’s box to billboards and beyond in order to get it.

“His players can look at what he does and listen to what he does and feel like, ‘You know what, I’m getting my money’s worth and he’s really selling me,’” Phillips said. “Which as a player, you would expect your agent to do for you. I think that for every team, the off-field stuff value, I think is included in the on-field value. If he’s a really good player and we win, then we’re going to draw more, then we’re going to have better ratings, and all that. A really good player and we lose, we really don’t draw more, we really don’t get better ratings.”

Rodriguez lasted three years in Texas. He averaged 52 home runs and a 1.011 OPS in those seasons. The Rangers averaged 72 wins, finishing last in the American League West each year. 

He took the money, broke the record, played well and lost consistently. 

Harper’s suitors appeared aligned to give him a better outcome. Los Angeles is the two-time defending National League champion. The Nationals have filled holes after a rare .500 season. Philadelphia is on the rise. Chicago and New York will be challengers in their respective leagues. And, of course, a mystery team could emerge.

Boras has been through this before. Baseball has been through it, too. Harper is new here. Does he want the record money? The place to expand his brand? A winning culture? Eighteen years ago, Rodriguez showed him what can go right, and wrong, when trying to figure that out.
 

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