Bryce Harper’s public recruitment of Mike Trout goes against baseball norms, but it can be good for the sport
Last week, Bryce Harper agreed to a 13-year deal worth $330 million with the Philadelphia Phillies. In the aftermath, Harper acknowledged he talked to Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout before signing — and went as far to say he will be calling Trout to recruit him once he hits free agency after the 2020 season
Predictably, the baseball world hasn’t reacted well to Harper’s comments. Earlier this week, the Angels requested Major League Baseball look into Harper’s thinly veiled recruiting pitch. On Thursday, longtime big-league skipper Tony La Russa called Harper’s words “disrespectful”:
Here’s a rebuttal: What Harper did isn’t that big of a deal, and might even be good for baseball.
Let’s start by acknowledging the actual issue La Russa (and others) have with Harper: He made his desire public.
Tampering rules are in place so teams won’t reach out to contracted players in order to dictate their plans. But that doesn’t stop teams from advertising their interest through the press. No one seemed offended when the New York Yankees leaked that they were interested in Colorado Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado a season before he was slated to hit the open market. (Arenado has since signed a long-term deal with the Rockies, suggesting New York’s overtures were ineffective.) Likewise, nobody had issue with the years of rumors connecting Harper to the Chicago Cubs and pal Kris Bryant.
Player-to-player tampering seems less severe — in part because it almost certainly already exists. There’s no way to police what players talk about, or when they talk about it. Again, no one cared that Manny Machado polled brother-in-law Yonder Alonso and friend Jon Jay about what it was like playing in San Diego — even though both were employed by the Chicago White Sox, another one of his potential suitors. Machado was a free agent, sure, but let’s not play naive and pretend this doesn’t happen when players are under contract.
Why do teams not want players openly recruiting each other? In part because it gives the players more leverage.
Think about the NBA, where superstars plot to join forces years in advance. Teams who land a superstar have to go all-out to keep that player happy by surrounding them with as much talent as possible. If the team fails to do so, the player leaves — be it through trade or free agency. Now, think about Mike Trout’s situation. He might one day be considered the best to ever play … and yet he’s appeared in just three career postseason games. He’s the exact kind of player who would demand out if this were the NBA.
This isn’t the NBA, and Trout isn’t going to demand out — lest he become public enemy No. 1 in baseball circles. Still, Harper’s comments put pressure on the Angels to get better or coerce Trout to stay by offering him a highly lucrative deal before he hits the open market. Whichever route they pick, it’ll mean spending more money.
And that’s part of why Harper’s recruitment of Trout might be a good thing; maybe it rattles owners into prioritizing wins over profits. (Probably not.) At minimum, it entertains fans — and that’s something the past two winters haven’t done, for the most part.
Rather, baseball has become too fond of being viewed and described as a business; words like collusion and efficiency get used more often than dynasty or championship. Harper’s comments were against the rules, unwritten or otherwise, but they made us think about the game in a fun way. That should be the takeaway here — not that Harper violated the sport in some sacred way.