Barring unforeseen circumstances, Washington Nationals right fielder Bryce Harper will be the highest paid player in MLB history by this time next year. Whether it’s the Nats keeping the five-time all-star or a potential suitor luring him away with a sweet free agent deal, Harper is going to receive a big payday.
Pursuing Harper makes tons of sense for teams willing and able to make such a steep financial commitment. After all, the Las Vegas native is entering his seventh full MLB season and he’s only 25-year-old. The opportunity to acquire an elite-level player fully entrenched in his prime doesn’t happen very often.
If Harper does reach the market, which teams actually enter the fray is unknown. The rumor mill routinely mentions the usual suspects: the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers, and Chicago Cubs. Perhaps a dark horse like the Philadelphia Phillies emerges.
Thinking about the exorbitant price some club will pay for Harper’s services led me to consider where exactly his career might take him. Is the former MVP and Rookie of the Year on a trajectory to reach Cooperstown or just have a very nice career?
Since it’s impossible to predict a player’s future, I decided to have some fun by contrasting Harper to a couple of retired stars. Perhaps, doing so will provide us with a measure of perspective on the direction his career could go. One of the players I selected is a Hall of Famer. The other possessed the physical gifts to reach Cooperstown until life happened.
Specifically, I’m referring to Reggie Jackson and Darryl Strawberry. Both predominantly played right field and were left-handed hitters, just like Harper. Comparing the trio’s stat lines at a similar point in their respective careers should prove enlightening as we ponder Harper’s future.
The following table illustrates the offensive production of Harper, Jackson, and Strawberry through their first 3,262 plate appearances; Harper’s total through the end of the 2017 season. Please note the listed age refers to how old each player was when he reached the designated plate appearance milestone.
Overall, Harper’s production compares very well to that of Jackson and Strawberry. The Nats outfielder leads the pack in OBP and OPS and relatively close to Jackson in home runs. That’s noteworthy considering “Mr. October” finished his 21-year career with 563 bombs — thirteenth best on the all-time list.
Most eye-opening to me was Strawberry’s numbers. The overall first pick in the 1980 draft led Jackson in home runs, plus he stole more bases than Jackson and Harper had combined. Sadly, injuries, a messy divorce, and drug addiction problems derailed “Straw” by age-30. During the final eight seasons of his 17-year career, the player once compared to Ted Williams averaged just 42 games.
Clearly, we won’t know how Harper’s career will play out until it does. With good health and continued elite-level production, he has a reasonable chance of joining Jackson in the Hall of Fame. On the other hand, Strawberry’s experience is a cautionary tale of how a player’s career can go sideways for a variety reasons.