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The Cardinals need to pay Bryce Harper $40 million a year, then let him opt out

It’s been eerily quiet, not just for the St. Louis Cardinals — but for all of major league baseball — when it comes to the free agent market this winter.

So here is my pitch when it comes to the Redbirds and the top Hot Stove League prize of them all, Bryce Harper. Maybe if St. Louis threw this out there, it would light a fire under the market.

What we know:

Harper turned down an offer reported to be for $300 million over 10 seasons from the only club he’s known as a professional. That seems to back up the widely-held belief that Harper is holding out to be the highest-paid player in MLB history. That makes the target something north of the $325 million Giancarlo Stanton got from the Miami Marlins over 13 years before being traded to the New York Yankees last winter.

How do the Cardinals get there?

I suggest St. Louis, if it is serious about landing the slugging left-handed outfielder, offer a contract that pays Harper $40 million a season for five years and then gives him the chance to opt out. Then the deal would pay $30 million for three more years with a buyout and then $25 million for each of two more seasons.

We know Bryce Harper looks good in red. The St. Louis front office need to make sure he looks good in Cardinals red for at least the next five years. John Amis AP

That works out to $200 million for five years for sure — and the possibility of $150 million more for a total of $350 million over 10 years, handily more than Stanton’s pact but tolerable because it only pays Harper through his age 36 season. If the Cardinals are determined to get Harper, there is room for negotiation, possibly adding another $10 million to the sixth season of the contract and they could add another 10 million for the last two seasons if they so desired, making the pact worth $370 million.

My expectation is that, if Harper is anywhere near his prime when he completes the first five years, he’s going to opt out and try to cash in again. That’s great because, if St. Louis had the opportunity to land the slugger for five years at $200 million, the club would almost surely take it. That would give the Birds one of the prime players in baseball for his best years — and it would give Harper the chance to re-enter the market after five years of inflation — at the age of 31. He might get another eight-year deal from somebody. So, it’s important to not be suckered in by sticker shock. This deal is going to be like an NFL contract, unlikely to ever reach its paper value. Even if Harper chose not to opt out because of health reasons, the Cardinals could get insurance on the deal and avoid paying a large chunk of the contract if Harper can’t be the player they hope he will be in the future.

The bottom line is that the Cardinals can’t guarantee Harper will chose to play in St. Louis if all things are equal. But I think, with the additional revenue from their local television contract renewal, the new national television contract that MLB leaders signed and a roster heavy on inexpensive, young players, they are in a position not to be out-bid. They’re saving a ton of money on Adam Wainwright’s contract this year and will likely shed the $13 million Jedd Gyorko is to make this year and possibly the $8 million or so Michael Wacha will make in 2019. Ozuna has one year left on his deal and Yadier Molina has two. While much is made of how little money the Philadelphia Phillies have on their books, the Cardinals aren’t far behind.

The $200 over the first five years ought to be extremely competitive with the amount of dollars that will be available during that span. I’m guessing that the only thing Harper could ask for would be an earlier opt out. I’d love to have him for five years if I am the Cardinals negotiator. However, If you got him for three years and $120 million, would that necessarily be a bad thing? It would certainly be more appealing to me than the alternate possibility of trading top prospects to Arizona for only one year of Paul Goldschmidt.

If Harper left after three years, you would still have those young players — and you’d have a healthy opening in your budget to add additional talent.

Last year people were wringing their hands over the prospect of paying Stanton the $280 million then left on his contract. In just one calendar year, the price of doing business has gone up dramatically. With the $5 billion plus television contract the league just signed, prices aren’t going to go down.