The five-year major league deal signed by Bryce Harper with the Nationals did not resolve a potentially important issue, reports Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post. When time came to iron out the details of Harper's signing-deadline deal, a stalemate emerged over whether or not Harper would be able to opt out if he became eligible for arbitration during the life of the deal. Unable to resolve the issue, the club agreed with agent Scott Boras to a side letter agreement providing that, if it arose, the matter would be resolved by a grievance hearing.
With 1.159 years of service, Harper is not eligible for arbitration this year. However, he is a virtual lock to have sufficient service time to be a Super Two player next year. Because his draft deal runs through 2015, the issue that the parties failed to resolve at the time is very much in play now.
One year of salary may not seem to present a major issue at first glance: Harper stands to earn as much as $2MM in 2015 anyway due to roster bonuses, and his free agency timetable is unaffected. But even an average Harper campaign in 2014 should easily support an advance over Eric Hosmer's Super Two projection of $4.1MM, while a big season could blow that number out of the water. More importantly, perhaps, a Super Two payday could play an important role in setting the baseline for his earnings between 2016-18, during which time Harper will be arb-eligible, significantly raising the stakes.
As Kilgore well explains, the sides remain in each others' good graces and there are several possible outcomes at this point. There are two extremes. First, the club could simply acquiesce in actually or effectively treating Harper as a Super Two. Second, it could refuse to pay a dime over the 2015 rate provided in the contract, likely leading to a grievance hearing (as contemplated in the deal). Neither seems the most likely outcome, in Kilgore's estimation, and there are plenty of routes that negotiations could take to avoid the issue on a temporary or permanent basis.
Indeed, as Kilgore mentions, the need to negotiate on Harper's contract could provide additional impetus to broader extension talks. Though it remains unclear whether Harper would have any interest in putting free agent years in play, Boras has (perhaps semi-seriously) floated the idea of a dozen-year extension.
Certainly, if any talks were to occur, Boras would seek something exceptional for a player with Harper's ceiling and early-career production at such a young age. Though he accumulated less WAR in his age-20 season than he had in his rookie campaign, that was driven largely by reduced playing time due to injury and his shift to a corner outfield spot. Harper actually substantially improved at the plate: his .274/.368/.486 slash boosted his 121 wRC+ in 2012 up to a 137 mark that placed in the top-25 in all of baseball (minimum 400 at-bats).
In terms of league-wide impact, this appears to be a one-off issue. First, big league deals are no longer permitted for players signed out of the amateur draft. And so far as has been reported, this is the only example in which the issue was left for future resolution. (Also worth mentioning, as Kilgore notes, is that arbitration opt-out clauses were standard in those major league contracts previously inked by drafted players, at least when the length of the deal made arbitration a realistic possibility.)