SALT LAKE CITY — With the addition of Bryce Harper, the Philadelphia Phillies hoped to be World Series contenders.
His 13-year, $330-million contract was the richest in the sport’s history at the time (Angels slugger Mike Trout broke the record weeks later), and so far, he’s repaid the Phillies’ investment by failing to make the All-Star team for the second time in his eight-year career.
Harper isn’t the only player who signed a big contract and (so far) failed to reach expectations. The other big free-agent signing of the baseball offseason, Manny Machado (10 years, $300 million), was also left out of the All-Star Game. The San Diego Padres third baseman has out-hit Harper in terms of batting average and home runs, but he was beat out for a third-base spot by Colorado’s Nolan Arenado, Washington’s Anthony Rendon and Chicago’s Kris Bryant.
These two weren’t the only noteworthy snubs. Boston shortstop Xander Bogaerts, who leads American League shortstops with 16 home runs and 57 RBIs while posting the third-best wins above replacement, didn’t make it. Boston outfielder Mookie Betts, who did make the All-Star squad, told the Boston Herald that “they should take a look and see how the voting goes because [Bogaerts and third baseman Rafael Devers] deserve to be there.”
Since All-Star reserves are voted on by players and selected by the commissioner's office, it’s an imperfect process, and sometimes deserving players get left out. Snubs happen. But based on performance, it wasn’t surprising to see Harper and Machado left out. It’s only a “snub” because of how much they’re paid. After all, it does seem unusual that the National League’s two highest-paid players, in the first year of their lucrative new deals, couldn’t make a 32-man All-Star squad.
Granted, it’s still very early. And given the length of their contracts, Machado and Harper will have plenty of time to make up for their thus-far lackluster play. But asking whether they’ve been worth their money is worth doing on today of all days, since today is Bobby Bonilla Day.
In the history of American professional sports, there’s perhaps no contract as famous — or, if you’re the New York Mets, infamous — as former outfielder Bobby Bonilla’s. The deal is so notorious that every July 1, when the Mets must pay up, baseball writers tweet in glorious unison wishing baseball fans a happy “Bobby Bonilla Day.”
The story begins in 1998, when Bonilla, coming off hitting .237 with seven home runs and 30 RBIs with the Los Angeles Dodgers, was traded to the New York Mets. Those numbers didn’t reflect Bonilla’s career. He was a six-time All-Star — including twice with the Mets — a three-time Silver Slugger winner and a World Series Champion. The Mets hoped they could recapture some of the past production of the then-36-year-old Bonilla.
Their hopes were misplaced.
Bonilla hit .160 in ‘99 — a career low by .077 points — with 18 RBIs and four home runs in 60 games. Plus, his production aside, he publicly feuded with Mets manager Bobby Valentine. There was the time in July, per the New York Post, that Bonilla was unavailable to pinch hit for “mysterious reasons,” with sources telling the Post they’d “never seen anything like it.” And more notoriously, the Record of Hackensack reported that in Game Six of the 1999 National League Championship Series, Bonilla and teammate Rickey Henderson spent the last few innings of the game playing cards in the clubhouse.
At the end of the season, Bonilla still had a year left on his contract and was owed $5.9 million. The Mets had seen enough and wanted to release him. But they also wanted to keep that $5.9 million to sign a free agent. So, per Yahoo Finance, they hashed out an agreement: A stream of deferred payments, paid every year on July 1, with an 8% interest rate, starting in 2011 and ending in 2035. So every year, the Mets pay Bonilla $1.19 million even though he hasn’t played professional baseball since 2001. The contract is worth roughly $29.75 million, all starting with the $5.9 million he was owed.
As Michael Mayer, executive editor of MetsMerized, pointed out on Twitter, Bonilla is certainly not the only baseball player who’s owed deferred money. The Baltimore Orioles, for example, will pay slugger Chris Davis $42 million in 15 installments through 2037. But because of how long it’s been since Bonilla last played, he’s the poster-child.
On the surface, it looks like a bad deal for the Mets to more than quadruple what was owed, but as Yahoo Finance pointed out, the Mets used the freed-up money to sign pitcher Mike Hampton, who became the 2000 NLCS MVP en route to a World Series berth. And when he didn’t re-sign, the Mets were awarded a compensatory draft pick that became future franchise third baseman David Wright.
Was it worth it?
That brings us back to Harper and Machado. Have they been worth it?
There’s no benefit of hindsight here. So given that the All-Star break doesn’t even arrive until next week, it’s hard to say. And even with the benefit of hindsight, it would still be hard to quantify. Although Harper has underperformed, the Phillies’ average attendance has, per Baseball Reference, rocketed from 26,644 last year to 35,222. The Padres have also experienced a more modest increase of about 2,000 fans per game. That begs the question of how one can evaluate a player’s worth when it comes to excitement generated for fans.
As far as return on investment, owners make more money with increased ticket sales, and certainly with deep postseason runs. On that front, plenty of hope remains.
Harper is having trouble seeing the ball with the Phillies — his league-leading 101 strikeouts puts him on pace to obliterate his previous career-high of 169 — but if he can figure that out, his numbers should trend up. Plus the Phillies are still only five and a half games out of first in the National League East and are tied for the second National League wild-card slot. And Machado is still on pace to total a career high in home runs and RBIs while the Padres sit a game and a half out of a wild-card slot. Certainly if they’re still playing at their current paces this time next year, the bust conversation will be more worth having — especially for Harper, whose 1.9 WAR this season, per FanGraphs, ranks lower than Phillies teammate Rhys Hoskins (2.1), who is making $575,000 this season; Toronto Blue Jays second baseman Eric Sogard (2.1), who is making $555,000 this season; and Cardinals shortstop Paul DeJong (2.9), who is making $1,166,666 this season.
Harper, as a reminder, is making more the $11 million this year and upwards of $20 million through 2031.
But again, there’s still plenty of time for them to earn their money. A pair of 10- and 13-year contracts can’t be judged by one missed All-Star Game.