Is the often-injured Bryce Harper really worth $500 million?

Jeff Passan
MLB columnist

The last time Bryce Harper played a full season of baseball, he was a 19-year-old rookie. That was five years ago. In that half-decade since, Harper has suffered through injuries to the hip, knee, thumb, neck, shoulder and now, after Saturday’s awkward landing on first base, his knee again.

The closest Harper came to a 162-game season was two years ago, the year in which he won National League MVP and played 153 games. Considering the 162-game season is an endangered species – since Harper’s first year, only a baker’s dozen have hit the standard – that threshold may not be fair. Lower it to the old benchmark, 154 games, and the number expands to 129 players.

That Harper is not among them does matter, insofar as 15 months from now, he’s going to be asking teams to pay him $500 million for the privilege of him wearing their uniform. And while there are no questions about Harper’s talent, and any concerns about his maturity – which really shouldn’t have existed in the first place, frankly – seem laid to rest as well, this latest malady only adds to the notion that one of the game’s greatest players is injury prone.

Together, those two words are about as ugly a designation as one can assign an athlete. They’re not personal, nor are they some kind of incontrovertible diagnosis, like the one the Washington Nationals released after Harper’s left knee buckled Saturday night and led to some gnarly-looking screenshots. Thankfully, the Nationals medical staff read an MRI, not a GIF, and determined Harper sustained a bone bruise but no ligament or tendon damage. Harper will miss weeks, maybe more, and it’s impossible to know whether he can continue playing at his current .326/.419/.614 level when he returns.

The mere perception of injury proneness, though, runs in contrast with the wisdom of a team handing Harper a $500 million (or, for that matter, $400 million) contract when he hits free agency following the 2018 season. Wisdom, it should be noted, is not a frequent bedfellow with free agency, and Giancarlo Stanton’s issues staying healthy didn’t prevent the Miami Marlins from lavishing upon him a $325 million deal, still the largest in American sports history.

Another season, another Bryce Harper injury. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

In the two seasons after Stanton signed the contract, he didn’t even reach 120 games. This year he has played all but two games and leads the major leagues in home runs, and years like 2017 are why teams that already engaged in the risk-taking of a long-term contract are willing to compound the deed by squaring the risk with a player whose body simply has not consistently held up to the rigors of a full season.

The definition of injury prone varies, and it’s not exactly a predictive sobriquet, either. Odd though this may sound, think of injury proneness in a young player in similar terms as plate discipline. Just because a young player doesn’t take walks doesn’t connote some inability to take them. Ultimately, he may. But it’s not easy, and far more often than not, a player’s eye does not improve to the point where it’s a strength.

Perhaps as he gets older …

1. Bryce Harper will grok what comes to others intuitively: The ability to stay healthy. This is, admittedly, a perspective and point of view that is not shared by all. Some believe injuries are a matter of luck, and seeing as our knowledge of their causes remains iffy at best, it’s a perfectly fair and understandable perspective to have. I happen to think some players understand their bodies, and particularly movement, better than others, and the journey to learning as much leaves them far less susceptible to injuries – thus, the use of the word ability.

Undeniable is the truth that every body is different, and that some, because of inherent strength deficits, imbalances borne of training or literally a million other reasons, are likelier to get injured. Now, it’s fair to note that a number of Harper’s injuries have come on freak plays. On Sunday, he slipped on first base – about an hour after a rainstorm had abated, yes, and following six other runners stepping on it as well.

Even if this acknowledgment of aberration does hold – and I don’t believe it does, but for the sake of argument, let’s pretend – Harper’s struggles for two years with lesser, lingering injuries is just as palpable. Admirable though it may be for players to grit out injuries, some do so with negligible drop-off in performance. Harper has not been one of them. In 2013 and 2016, in particular, Harper tried to play through persistent ailments and simply wasn’t himself. He deserves credit for trying, but to sugarcoat the results would be like saying …

2. Manny Machado’s 2017 season hasn’t at least given some pause to the bougie teams that have considered what a $300 million-plus investment in Machado might resemble. When it comes to matters of nine figures, every minute detail matters, and when there’s a crooked number as the first of the nine, it’s even more imperative.

Like Harper, Machado is slated to hit free agency as a 26-year-old, and he’ll do so as arguably the best defensive third baseman in baseball. (Nolan Arenado’s argument is pretty good.) And that certainly matters, because Machado’s offense in the first half was mediocre enough to wonder how, exactly, he ever got into the mega-deal sort of conversation in the first place.

Since the All-Star break, the real Machado has returned and been spectacular. Sunday’s 3-for-4 showing with a triple and home run capped a 7-for-14 weekend and raised his season-long OPS to .786, the highest it has been since May 12. Key to Machado’s second-half resurgence has been a near-halving of his strikeout rate. He has gone three weeks without a multi-strikeout game after logging 17 in the first half.

That matters, because when Machado does make contact, he does so almost as well as anyone. His swings have produced more 95-mph-plus exit velocities than any player in baseball this season. Manny Machado with a sub-10 percent strikeout rate and his glove is a $300 million player, and all he needs is another year like his second half to show as much. The market loves him, though the market loves anybody who’s producing, which is why …

3. Elvis Andrus is going to opt out of the four years and $58 million remaining on his deal after the 2018 season, barring an absolute collapse. Andrus’ resurgence is one of the more impressive of the 2017 season because it not only validated last year’s but built upon it. And what once looked like a disaster of a contract extension by the Rangers actually looks like a bargain.

Andrus is still only 29, and with a .295/.333/.477 line that gives him the fourth-highest slugging percentage among major league shortstops behind Carlos Correa, Corey Seager and Didi Gregorius, his value is immense. Good major league shortstops are $20 million-a-year players, and Andrus’ competition in the 2018-19 free agent class – of which all the players in this week’s 10 Degrees are members – is Jose Iglesias, Adeiny Hechavarria and Freddy Galvis.

As obvious as an opt-out seems, Andrus does have options. His contract includes a clause for an opt-out after the 2019 season, and if he fears the market in 2018 will be too overcrowded, he could wait. The likelihood of it collapsing on a shortstop, though, is minimal, because almost everyone could use a shortstop, and the fact that …

4. Marwin Gonzalez gives the Houston Astros as delightful a secondary option as he does (and Alex Bregman a tertiary one that proves the rich can indeed get richer) shows what a revelation Gonzalez has been this season.

Until 2017, he was Marwin Gonzalez, utilityman, a designation meant to assign versatility but that connotes limited efficacy. Today, he is Marwin Gonzalez, super utilityman, that super assigned to someone who can play plenty of positions, yes, but who can hit in a representative fashion at each of them.

Gonzalez has more than enough stick for shortstop, where he played Sunday, or left field, where he has played 34 games this season, or first base (21 games) or third base (17 games) or second base (11 games). On an Astros team with All-Star after All-Star, it’s the one who hasn’t made a Midsummer Classic that’s among the scariest.

Gonzalez’s .314/.391/.565 slash line is no first-half mirage. He has been nearly the same hitter after the break as he was before, and while Jose Altuve is the Astros’ (and maybe the American League’s) MVP, Gonzalez would get some votes inside the Astros’ clubhouse, if only because of how the team values versatility and he personifies it better than anyone. The Astros know it’s going to be their lineup that pushes them through October, unless …

5. Dallas Keuchel can pitch in the playoffs like he did Sunday. It was far and away the best of his four outings since coming off the disabled list; the only blemish an Adrian Beltre home run. The Astros remain dutiful in building up Keuchel’s pitch count – from 79 to 87 to 92 to 97 – after he missed nearly two months, cognizant that without any trade-deadline fortification, he is even more important than he already was.

Keuchel, remember, was the one who levied the most public criticism of the Astros’ front office in the wake of their deadline inaction, and this wasn’t altogether surprising, because Keuchel is opinionated and outspoken and believes this team – still, even after its recent skid, 12 games up on the Angels – can win a World Series.

Seeing as he and the disabled-listed Lance McCullers Jr. came into the weekend sporting 9.00-plus ERAs in the second half, and that the Astros’ as a team before Sunday was 5.45, there is work to do. Remember: They’ve got seven weeks to figure this out. Seven weeks to set up their postseason rotation, seven weeks to lock down seven guys for a bullpen, seven weeks to rest players properly. That’s what a dozen-game advantage does. The Astros have leeway to figure out who exactly they are. The next seven weeks for …

6. Matt Harvey should be much of the same. Not that it’s going to take Harvey from the prospect of a one-year contract in free agency to the guy who once looked like a $200 million sort. At the very least it can salvage what otherwise has been the worst season of his career, which is saying something considering how 2016 went.

His recovery from thoracic outlet syndrome surgery never took, and now Harvey is on a rehab assignment after missing two months with a crack in his shoulder blade. If everything goes well, he could be back in September and trying to make up for 13 starts, in which he allowed 16 home runs over 70 1/3 innings and set career-worst marks in walk and strikeout rate.

The good news for Harvey is he has another year to remind the baseball world of the pitcher who in his first 427 innings struck out 449 and put up a 2.53 ERA. All it takes is one well-timed season to make teams fall all over themselves, and …

7. Charlie Blackmon can only hope his constant progression doesn’t end next season. Because after drawing full-time at-bats for the first time in 2014, he has increased his on-base and slugging percentages annually, and this season his slash line is up there with anyone not named Trout: .335/.394/.614.

As fascinating as it’s going to be to see what a team is willing to give Harper and Machado, Blackmon’s case is going to be low-key spellbinding. He’s got the numbers of a player well into the $100 million range and a number of excuses why not to give it to him. Blackmon will hit free agency as a 32-year-old. And even more damning are his home-road splits.

No matter how good Blackmon has been this season – his second half has been especially lethal, as he’s hitting over .400 and slugging nearly .750 – it’s impossible to ignore how he does at Coors Field and away from it. Blackmon’s Coors line, going into Sunday: .398/.469/.815. His road line: .288/.330/.458. His career OPS is about 220 points higher at Coors.

For now, all Blackmon can do is keep raking, growing massive beards and hoping the Rockies can hold on to the wild card. Next year, though, that 400-point OPS gap simply won’t play, not if he wants to challenge …

8. Josh Donaldson as the 30-something hitter primed to get the biggest contract. Like Blackmon, Donaldson will be 32 heading into the 2019 season – in fact, Donaldson’s birthday is Dec. 8, the day before the Winter Meetings kick off in Las Vegas – and age will be the biggest hindrance between him and the insane money someone with his pedigree warrants.

Are the days of 32-year-olds getting 10-year deals, a la Albert Pujols and Robinson Cano, done? Should Donaldson log an MVP-type season next year, he may put that question to the test. This season, he missed six weeks with a calf injury, and while Donaldson has been more than serviceable (.255/.382/.490 with stellar glovework at third), his age is ever hanging over him and makes …

9. Daniel Murphy a more suitable comparable at this point. And by no means is that bad company. Murphy has shown last season was no outlier, following up a year in which he led the NL in slugging with a .329/.383/.569 jamboree. It’s not an exaggeration to call him one of the best hitters in baseball. The only question is what someone will pay for a guy who turns 34 right before Opening Day 2019.

Already Murphy is on one of the best free-agent deals in recent memory. At $8 million last year he was bank robbery, at $12 million this year larceny and at $17.5 million next year still a bargain. And even though his career earnings will exceed $50 million after the 2018 season, Murphy is going to want to get capital-P paid, and understandably so.

With Brian Dozier, D.J. LeMahieu and Ian Kinsler also free agents, the market for second basemen will be crowded – and Murphy’s glove, never exactly a strong suit, may push teams toward the others, particularly LeMahieu, the youngest and best fielder of the bunch. His Coors split barely exists, too, which makes him something of an oddity among Rockies free agents.

Murphy’s bat has been so good, though, it will play anywhere. Whether that’s alongside …

10. Bryce Harper depends on just how much the Nationals intend to ante up. Because for all the talk about the New York Yankees, all the suspicion about the Chicago Cubs, all the fear of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Harper was drafted a National and raised a National. He became a star as a National and went to five All-Star Games as a National and could win a World Series as a National.

And had he not slipped on first base, we may be talking about how he’d win his second MVP as a National. There is no denying that when Harper plays baseball at his apex, there are but a handful of players as talented, and maybe fewer as mentally capable of handling the rigors of superstardom as him. Harper is what’s good about baseball.

Still, if this knee injury sidelines him through the middle of September, this will be the third time in five years he missed 40 or more games, and for that to happen before his 25th birthday is alarming. Athletes don’t age in reverse. The older one gets, the harder it is to stay healthy. It’s a balancing act only a lucky few manage.

All Harper can do is play at an elite level and endeavor to learn his body – what it can and can’t do, what it’s capable of relative to his age, what he needs in order for it to last 162 (or at least 154 games). A full season is an eminently reasonable goal for a player. In a career of accomplishment, it’s really the only individual one left for Bryce Harper to conquer.

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