When Bryce Harper scrawls his signature on the contract that will bind him to an as-yet-undetermined franchise for the next chapter of his career, it will complete what has been the most anticipated and scrutinized free agency in baseball in nearly two decades — one that has seemed to be Harper’s destiny since he debuted with the Washington Nationals in April 2012.
Harper’s unique set of attributes — youth, talent and magnetism — has only one real antecedent in the recent history of free agency, and if the example of Alex Rodriguez is any guide, this one stroke of the pen will alter the trajectories of three important entities: the team that signs Harper, the team that loses him and the player himself. And perhaps not in the way any of them anticipated.
The record-setting, 10-year, $252 million contract Rodriguez signed with the Texas Rangers on Dec. 11, 2000 remains a watershed moment for the sport. It doubled Kevin Garnett’s Minnesota Timberwolves deal as the biggest free agent contract in North American sports at the time. Anyone who was present at the Wyndham Anatole Hotel in Dallas will likely never forget the ashen faces of league officials and rival executives as they heard the figures.
“I’m kind of stupefied by the numbers. They’re beyond alarming,” Sandy Alderson, then Major League Baseball’s vice president of baseball operations, told reporters at the time. “This is a crisis situation. I really believe that.”
For 18 years — even as the industry’s annual revenue has nearly tripled — the Rangers’ deal for Rodriguez (worth nearly $380 million in present-day dollars when adjusted for inflation) remains the most money ever committed to a baseball player who changed teams. Or at least it has remained so, until Harper and Manny Machado, his co-star on this high-priced double-bill, took aim at it this winter.
No two cases are alike, and there are enough differences between Rodriguez in 2000 and Harper in 2018 — beginning with the fact the former was a shortstop, the latter an outfielder — to make any comparison imprecise. But in many of the biggest ways, including the agent negotiating on their behalf, Scott Boras, they are the remarkably similar:
Both were former No. 1 overall draft picks, both had been the most celebrated teenager in the game when they debuted, and both were still only 25 when they completed their final season before free agency. Both had a lengthy list of accomplishments by that time — for Rodriguez, a batting title, three 40-home-run seasons and four all-star appearances; for Harper, rookie of the year and MVP awards, a home run title and six all-star appearances.
In the 18 years between them, there have been other players who were similarly young (Adrian Beltre) or talented (Albert Pujols, among others) when they hit free agency — and Machado, a 26-year-old shortstop/third baseman who could challenge Harper this winter for the largest deal in baseball history, checks both boxes — but not since Rodriguez has someone arrived at this point with the same combination of youth, talent and marketing potential as Harper.
(Mike Trout, at 27 the consensus best player in baseball, likely would have shattered all records had he hit free agency last winter, at the end of his sixth year of service time, but he had already signed a six-year, $144.5 million contract extension with the Los Angeles Angels in 2014 that delays his free agency until 2020.)
Boras, in some of the same language he once reserved for Rodriguez, has called Harper a “generational” and “iconic” player. “Anyone who’s done what Bryce has done at 25,” he said last month with typical hype and bluster, “is almost a lock to be a Hall-of-Fame player … We know elite performances are coming for Bryce Harper and the franchise he plays for.”
Such a player move is bound to alter history for the entire industry, but never more so than for the three principals: the team that says goodbye, the team that says hello and the player who says goodbye and hello in the same breath. Here, in a case study that could prove instructive for the Harper signing, is a look back at how that aftermath played out around Rodriguez.
The old team
The Mariners never had much of a prayer of keeping Rodriguez, and they barely even tried. Their final offer was for $90 million over five years — half the length and barely a third of the overall value that Rodriguez wound up getting from Texas. It was an offer the Mariners knew in advance would fall short. (Contrast that with the 10-year, $300 million offer the Nationals made to Harper on the eve of his free agency — an offer that, while rejected, was widely seen as a good-faith attempt and, had Harper accepted it, would have set a record for a free agent signing.)
“We had discussions, but we never really got close,” Pat Gillick, the Mariners’ general manager at the time, said of the Rodriguez negotiations, such as they were. “I think [Boras] — as he’s supposed to do — was telling his client to go on the market and see what the market really was. That’s the responsibility of a good agent.”
Rodriguez was the third superstar the Mariners had lost in a span of two and a half years, following the trades of left-hander Randy Johnson in July 1998 and center fielder Ken Griffey Jr. in February 2000. After giving some consideration to trading Rodriguez ahead of the 2000 season, the Mariners decided to keep him and try to contend one last time with him, ultimately going 91-71, earning a wild card and advancing to the 2000 American League Championship Series. In his final two at-bats in a Mariners uniform, a 9-7 loss in Game 6 of the ALCS, Rodriguez homered off New York Yankees pitcher Orlando Hernandez and singled off closer Mariano Rivera.
Nobody could have foreseen what happened next in Seattle: the 2001 Mariners, largely fueled by AL rookie of the year and MVP Ichiro Suzuki, went 116-46 — still the best regular-season record by any team in the past century — before losing to the Yankees in the ALCS for the second straight season.
The timing of the Mariners’ historic season, in their first year without Rodriguez, was frequently cited as evidence that a team built with talented pieces across its roster is better off than one constructed around a single transcendent figure.
“We closed ranks” after the departures of their superstars, Gillick recalled. “You have to realize it’s a team game. When you have a player like A-Rod or Harper, who can carry their load and then some, it makes it easier. But over 162 games, when everybody carries their load and a little more, there’s a closeness that develops.”
The new team
The Rangers were never viewed as a leading suitor for Rodriguez — right up until the moment they shocked the industry by signing him. In hindsight, however, they had the perfect mix of ingredients: a new owner, Tom Hicks, anxious to make a splashy move; a large media market where every other sport took a back seat to football; and a veteran roster that had made the playoffs as recently as 1999 and appeared to be only an additional piece or two from returning to prominence.
Not only that, but the Winter Meetings being in Dallas that year gave the Rangers a built-in national stage. (This year, with the Winter Meetings in Harper’s hometown of Las Vegas, the stage will belong primarily to him.)
While the national media was focused on known suitors such as the Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Mets, Chicago White Sox and Atlanta Braves, the Rangers’ brass was quietly preparing for a stealth recruitment.
“Ownership has to be heavily involved in something like that. This kind of transaction — it’s talked about a lot in the year before,” said Doug Melvin, the Rangers’ general manager at the time. “A lot of people were surprised, because the perception of the bigger players at the time was that they were all going to the L.A.s, the New Yorks, the Chicagos. But the stage was set up pretty well for us to make a big splash.”
At the introductory news conference, Hicks gushed, “Alex is the player we believe will allow this franchise to fulfill its dream of … becoming a World Series champion.”
But while the Rangers immediately saw a nearly 10-percent boost in attendance, Rodriguez, whose salary represented roughly a quarter of the team’s payroll, barely moved the needle on their win-loss record. The Rangers went from 71-91 in 2000 to 73-89 in 2001 — the latter a mark they would never exceed in Rodriguez’s time in Texas. By 2002, Melvin had been fired as the Rangers’ GM, and by February 2004, the Rangers had traded Rodriguez to the New York Yankees.
“The years I was there, we just didn’t have enough pitching,” Melvin said. Hicks always felt confident the Rodriguez signing would pay off, Melvin said, “and I thought it had a chance of working out, too. You bring a player like that into your lineup, it’s exciting. But no one or two players can win it for you. Baseball is a game of 25 players.”
If the aftermath of the Rodriguez move didn’t work out exactly the way the Mariners nor the Rangers might have expected, neither did it for the player himself. While Rodriguez thrived in the hitter-friendly Ballpark in Arlington, averaging 52 homers per season from 2001-2003 and winning his first MVP award in 2003, he failed to turn around the franchise’s fortunes. (As soon as he left, however, the 2004 Rangers improved by 18 wins, finishing 89-73.)
By the end of 2003, Rodriguez was so ready to leave, he agreed to move to third base to facilitate a trade to the Yankees, for whom he would go on to win MVP awards in 2005 and 2007. At the end of the latter season, he exercised an opt-out clause in his contract — a rarity when he first signed the deal in 2000, but now a standard feature of most major free agent deals — and eventually re-signed with the Yankees on a new, 10-year, $275 million contract, a deal that remains the largest ever for a free agent in baseball. (Giancarlo Stanton’s 13-year, $325 million contract with the Miami Marlins was an extension.)
“I never viewed it as a 10-year, $252 million deal, because of the opt-out,” Melvin said. “I told [Hicks], ‘He’s going to opt out. He’ll only be 31 years old.’ I viewed it as a seven-year, $180 million deal.”
All told, Rodriguez won three MVP awards, hit 329 homers, stole 132 bases and batted .304/.400/.591 over the seven seasons he played under the original 2000 contract. Nothing else may have gone as planned, but A-Rod put up the numbers.
However, while with the Yankees, Rodriguez also endured a pair of PED-related scandals that have tarnished his legacy and called into question his chances of earning election to the Hall of Fame. In 2009, he admitted using steroids from 2001-2003 while with the Rangers, and in 2014 he was suspended for the entire season for violating the league’s drug policy.
Rodriguez, now a television analyst for ESPN and Fox Sports, declined an interview request for this story through a spokesman, but while broadcasting a Nationals game this April, Rodriguez came close to expressing regret over his choice to chase every last dollar and sign with the Rangers. In discussing Harper’s pending free agency, he drew upon his own experience with free agency and said there was part of him that wished he had signed with the team he rooted for as a child: the Mets.
“I thought I would make great concessions to go play for the Mets,” Rodriguez said on the air. “I thought it was a great story for baseball … If I was to do it again, I would just take control of my career a lot more.”
The last 18 years of baseball history may have looked vastly different — certainly for the Mets and Rangers — had Rodriguez followed his own heart instead of his agent’s head in December 2000. Such decisions now await Harper, and such powers now rest with him. And the trajectory of the Nationals, and perhaps another franchise, stands on the verge of a great change.