What Zimmermann teaches us about Harper
Is that clickbaity enough? Maybe we should have listed a specific number of reasons why. Oh well, we’re locked in now. (Industry secret: You don’t choose the headline, the headline chooses you, you just write to whatever it is.)
Yesterday the Detroit Tigers officially introduced homegrown Nationals pitcher Jordan Zimmermann as their newest free agent acquisition for five years and $110 million. If those contract terms sound vaguely familiar, they should, since last offseason the Nationals final contract extension offer was rumored to be five years and $105 million, just $1 million a year less for the same seasons.
Now of course, offering five years and $105 million after Zimmermann’s best season that was close to Cy Young worthy and offering five years and $110 million after Zimmermann’s worst season are two different things. If the Nats were given a chance to respond to the Tigers’ offer, we can’t assume they would be coming in at the same price. There are a lot of reasons why Zimmermann isn’t a National and it isn’t that he hated Washington and never wanted to come back over $5 million. But that’s not what we’re here to talk about in this column so please stop getting us off topic.
What we do know is that the Nationals ended up nailing the market value for Zimmermann the free agent when he was still Zimmermann the National with an estimated market value of Jon Lester (6 years, $155 million).
What this tells us is two universal truths first: you should never ever pay market value for a player who isn’t actually on the market. Even entering this offseason Zimmermann was pegged for six years and $126 million both by the FanGraphs crowd estimate and MLB Trade Rumors. Turns out, the real market disagreed with everyone. Suddenly, the Nats not locking themselves in for an extra year and $50 million looks pretty smart.
The other universal truth flows from the first: that in order to not pay market value, a contract extension has to come early in the pre-arbitration/arbitration process. If a team wants to avoid paying market value to a big time player, the only way they can really do that is by beating what they would get from the heavily team-favored arbitration system. Paying for a couple of league minimum pre-arbitration years or providing guaranteed arbitration years is a sure way to snag a couple free agent years on the cheap.
For an elite player already into their arbitration years there is little incentive to re-up with a team on the cheap outside of some misplaced, extreme loyalty. They’re already so close to free agency and are usually making good, if not market rate, money by their last two arbitration years. That was the Nationals' real mistake with both Zimmermann and Desmond, they waited too long to begin talks, so when they went for the team friendly and smart contract offers, the sirens of free agency were already calling too loudly.
So now we finally arrive at the point the title forced us to make, this means the best time for the Nationals to make a contract extension offer to Bryce Harper is now. He’s only making $5 million next season, then has two arbitration years. Actually, the real best time to have done it was last season, during the arbitration dispute where the Nationals could have bought out a disputed pre-arbitration year and all three arbitration years after Harper came off another injury-riddled poor season. So this isn’t the best, so much as the last shot.
As a comparison, fellow MVP Josh Donaldson is in his second season of arbitration eligibility and is projected by MLB Trade Rumors to make $12 million after making $4.3 million last season. Next season Harper would likely be looking for a similar raise. It’s a lot easier to turn $5 million into $13 to get a discount later, than it is to turn $12 million into $20. The more low money years the Nationals buy out the better discount they’ll see on the free agent years they covet. For example six years for $150-168 million would put Harper squarely in the top 10 highest average annual values ever in MLB and grant him free agency at 29, while the Nats get three free agent years at a fairly reasonable rate. Or they could even try to blow out the Giancarlo Stanton deal with similar discounts.
With Zimmermann and Desmond the Nationals have shown they have a good idea for a fair contract extension offer that comes close to market value while giving the team plenty of protection. Now they just need to offer one at the right time and I would humbly suggest they give it to Harper.