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Bryce Harper: The first $500 million player?

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Harper the first $500 million player? (2:49)

ESPN SweetSpot Blog Senior Writer Dave Schoenfield discusses what Bryce Harper could earn when he becomes a free agent and if teams would be able to pay him a contract of $500 million. (2:49)

You think the money teams have spent this offseason has been insane? Well ...

Over at NBC Sports, Joe Posnanski speculates that when Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper becomes a free agent after the 2018 season, he'll be in line for a $500 million contract:

Harper becomes a free agent after the 2018 season, which will be just after he turns 26 years old. That could not be better for him. Most studies show that the 26-27-28 years are the typical peak for players with a slow decline until 31 or 32 when the decline speeds up considerably.

That means the team that signs Harper -- assuming he’s healthy and has put up similar years to his 2015 season -- can bet heavily on five to seven great years, and perhaps two or three more good ones, if he can stay strong until his mid-30s.

Remember the Fangraphs number for his value in 2015? Of course, inflation drives up value -- but even if you multiply $75.9 million by five, you come up with $380 million. Let’s say he’s half as good for another three years. That’s another $113 million. We’re already almost at $500 million.

Of course, baseball teams don’t go by Fangraphs numbers. They might not believe that Harper was really worth $76 million in 2015. But they know he was worth a whole lot. Baseball teams have calculations they don’t share with the rest of us.

That FanGraphs number Posnanski cites is Harper's estimated value earned in 2015, based on his 9.5 WAR and the going rate of teams spending about $8 million per WAR on the free-agent market.

Anyway, Harper's value lies in the fact that he'll be hitting the free-agent market at such a young age -- and presumably will still be one of the best players in the game. As Posnanski writes, when teams sign players to long-term deals, they're essentially hoping they outperform the contract in the first few years, knowing regression may come in later years. Harper could sign a 10-year contract that takes him from his age-26 through age-35 seasons, minimizing the number of post-peak years on the back end, unlike deals given to Albert Pujols and Robinson Cano in recent years that go until Pujols is 41 and Cano 40.

Joe makes another good point: Harper will want to break the bank. That's a ton of pressure for one player to live up to, even one as confident as Harper. His agent is Scott Boras, so keep that in consideration as well.

Is $500 million ridiculous? The highest annual average salary right now belongs to Zack Greinke at $34.4 million, and he's a pitcher in his 30s. The biggest total value contract was the $325 million contract that Giancarlo Stanton signed with the Marlins. No offense to Stanton, but he's never had a season that came close to what Harper did in 2015, and that contract was signed without him testing free agency and getting other offers.

So, yes, $500 million seems possible. By then, the Yankees will have wiped out all their big contracts except Masahiro Tanaka and Jacoby Ellsbury; the Dodgers have only Clayton Kershaw signed past 2018 (although he has an opt-out after 2018); the Red Sox mostly clear the books after 2019, other than David Price; the Phillies will be ready to spend big by then. You get the idea: The big-market teams will have money to spend. And according to Forbes, operating profits for many teams are high enough to afford this kind of contract.

Still, Harper has to stay healthy, which he didn't do in 2013 and 2014; he has to repeat this performance, which seems likely given his age, but you never know, maybe it was a career year; and a team has to have the audacity to spend that much on one player.

For more on the Nationals, check out the Nationals Baseball blog.