Tomase: Mookie Betts is watching Bryce Harper's free agency closely. He should be, because he's better

John Tomase
July 16, 2018 - 11:55 pm
Mookie Betts grand slam Blue Jays Red Sox

David Butler II/USA Today Sports

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We've been hearing about Bryce Harper's impending free agency for five years.

An All-Star at 19 and an MVP at 22, Harper is the most tantalizing talent to hit the market in his prime since 25-year-old Alex Rodriguez fleeced Rangers owner Tom Hicks for $252 million in 2001.

Harper doesn't turn 26 until October and the numbers bandied about sound like the GDP of an island nation: $300 million, $400 million . . . could he be worth half a billion?

Harper's appeal feels limitless. In a sport largely devoid of personality, his flowing mane, smeared NFL eye black, and edgy personality scream for the amplification of a major market. All of baseball's haves -- the Yankees, Dodgers, and yes, Red Sox -- should've spent the last half decade clearing the books to make a franchise-altering run at him.

Here's the thing as we rush to make Harper the highest-paid player in the history of everything, though. Mookie Betts is better in almost every way, and he has been for about three years.

Only now are many of us finally seeing it.

It's astounding, when you think about it. Harper looks the part, at a chiseled 6-foot-3, 220 pounds. He's been the anointed one since Sports Illustrated put him on the cover as a teenager. To his credit, he then delivered on his immense promise.

Betts? The Red Sox drafted him as an undersized high school second baseman out of Tennessee because they liked his quick hands. He shocked maybe everyone except himself by reaching the big leagues in 2014, and he has earned MVP votes in every season since, finishing second in 2016 to Mike Trout (no, we're not ready to go there yet) and positioning himself to win the thing this year.

The one skill Harper clearly had on Betts entering 2018 was pure power, and even that looks like a toss-up as both players hit the All-Star break with 23 home runs.

Betts is a better pure hitter, better baserunner, and better defender. He's more durable, more versatile, and infinitely less likely to be attacked in the dugout by an enraged teammate.

He's a true superstar, and the Red Sox are lucky he doesn't hit free agency until 2021, because were he on the market now, he'd potentially shatter the $40 million-a-year ceiling.

Instead, Harper and Baltimore's Manny Machado will be the monster names up for auction. While Machado is racing to free agency on the upswing, Harper has struggled mightily. He's batting a career-worst .214, his numbers somewhat salvaged by the 23 homers and a league-leading 78 walks, which have led to a respectable .833 OPS.

Betts is in another stratosphere. He leads the AL in average (.359), slugging (.691), and OPS (1.139). He's second in on base percentage (.448) and offensive WAR (5.6), despite missing 20 games. (It's a shame he missed that time, because with 208 total bases in 78 contests, he'd be on pace to become the first player since 2001 to top 400 total bases.)

Betts and Harper were born just nine days apart in October of 1992 -- along with Oct. 1 baby Xander Bogaerts -- and they're two of the most dynamic players in the game. Harper will hit free agency first, however, and Betts will be watching.

At Monday's All-Star media availability in Washington, he told reporters -- including WEEI.com's Rob Bradford -- that he's anxious to see how Harper sets the market.

"I'm really curious to see how it's going to play out," Betts said. "We'll see what kind of records he breaks. We all know what kind of player he is. I think that may affect some things going forward. . . Things kind of come full circle now. My peers are going through what is soon to come. I'll definitely be locked in to see what they get."

That information will be relevant one day. Betts hits free agency after his age 27 season instead of Harper's 25, but he'll still end up rich.

Perhaps a team pondering a Godfather offer for Harper should save its money for Betts, who has topped 100 runs created in each of the last four seasons, including this one. Harper has reached that threshold twice in his career.

Because Harper has become particularly pull-happy, he's being shifted more than ever. The left-handed hitter faces the shift roughly half the time, and his batting average on balls in play against it is only .233. By virtue of being right-handed, Betts is almost never shifted.

Then there are strikeouts. Betts has never K'd more than 82 times in a season. Harper has topped 100 five times, including this year, and during the two injury-plagued seasons when he didn't, he still finished at 94 and 99, respectively.

Add two Gold Gloves for Betts vs. none for Harper, as well as 98 steals in 116 chances for Betts vs. 68 in 98 chances for Harper (84.4 percent vs. 61.2 percent), and a portrait of a more rounded player emerges.

So Betts may not earn Harper's headlines, and for the time being, he's definitely not going to earn his salary. But as great as Harper has been, he's no Betts, so here's hoping the Red Sox are preparing to back up the Brinks truck, because whatever market Harper establishes this fall, he's merely setting the stage for Betts to surpass it in 2020.

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