Possible ripple effects of Machado's deal for Bryce and baseball

ByDavid Schoenfield ESPN logo
Wednesday, February 20, 2019

In the end, after weeks of consternation and grumbling and one prominent player suggesting the free-agent freeze could lead to a midseason player strike, Manny Machado received a contract commensurate with predictions at the start of the offseason: 10 years and $300 million.

That the deal is with the San Diego Padres feels only like a mild surprise at this point, given the various reports and rumors the past three-plus months. While it's not the record contract that agent Dan Lozano might have desired --Giancarlo Stanton signed a 13-year, $325 million extension with the Marlins after the 2014 season -- it is the largest free-agent contract in the history of American sports.

Can Bryce Harper beat it?

With Machado off the big dartboard of free agency, Harper now holds the cards. Teams that wanted Machado or Harper now have just one option. Reports suggested that Lozano and Scott Boras were in a bit of a staring contest, waiting for the other player to sign first and thus potentially pushing the jilted teams -- we mean you, Philadelphia Phillies -- to a more desperate, higher bid.

Of course, one of the teams willing to pay $300 million is now off the board as well -- it would seem inconceivable that one team would spend $600 million on two free agents in one offseason -- so at the minimum, Harper has one fewer team bidding for his services than Machado did.

But it only takes one.

Let's look at the potential ripple effects of the Machado agreement:

The offseason began with Phillies managing partner John Middleton saying, "We're going into this expecting to spend money. And maybe even be a little bit stupid about it." They remain the one team publicly connected to Machado and Harper throughout the winter, although it's not clear whether they've made a formal offer to Harper. Various reports also have suggested that the Phillies preferred Machado over Harper, viewing third base as a bigger hole over outfield, especially after signing free agent Andrew McCutchen to a three-year deal.

At Spectrum Field in Clearwater, Florida, Phillies GM Matt Klentak told reporters upon hearing of the Machado deal, "If the reports are true, then this contract will exceed our valuation, and sometimes you have to be willing to walk away. We made our bid, put our best foot forward and he ended up signing with the Padres."

So what is their valuation of Harper?

What we also don't know: Does Harper even want to play in Philadelphia? Leaving one successful NL East team where he has spent his entire career and has a comfort level for another NL East team that has been less successful (although on the upswing) would be a curious move, especially if the Nationals are still interested in bringing him back (and offering similar money). But the Nationals have spent a lot of money already this offseason, including Patrick Corbin's $140 million contract, and they project to have one of the best outfields in the game even without Harper.

They're an aging team that had the worst offense in the majors in 2018. Chasing down the Dodgers over the next half-decade already looks like a daunting task for new president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi. Now he also has to deal with an up-and-coming Padres team that has Machado and the top-rated farm system in the majors. (And not to dismiss the Rockies, coming off two straight wild-card berths.)

Of note: Zaidi was part of the Dodgers' front-office regime that never gave out a $100 million contract to a free agent under Andrew Friedman. Does Zaidi agree with that line of thinking? Will the need for a power hitter in the outfield -- especially a 26-year-old in his prime -- overrule everything? The Giants are a big-market team that has drawn 3 million fans nine seasons in a row, but attendance did drop last year to its lowest total since 2009 in a second straight losing season. Bay Area fans might need a shiny, new toy to entice them to keep coming to newly renamed Oracle Park.

Again, however: Does Harper want to play in San Francisco and maybe the toughest home run park in the majors for a left-handed batter?

It's not impossible to see a fit for Harper -- he, Aaron Judge and Stanton could have a timeshare in the corner outfield and DH spots -- but Brian Cashman has declined to entertain questions about the Yankees' pursuit of the two players with specific answers, saying the other day, "I would reinforce I'm doing my job. Whether that's those two or others." Hmm.

Well, maybe it was just a matter of cold, hard cash, but the White Sox, like the Padres, had to sell Machado on the future more than the present. If that was a factor, Machado chose the team with a slightly better current roster and the much deeper farm system. On the other hand, he also chose the team in the tougher division.

Would the White Sox be in play for Harper? Most speculate that they can't envision Jerry Reinsdorf going $300 million-plus for Harper. But he does have Machado's brother-in-law Yonder Alonso on the team.

The Dodgers sit out the Machado/Harper sweepstakes while the Padres, two hours to the south, snag one of the big stars. Hey, at least it makes the NL West a lot more interesting.

I'm not convinced this is certainto happen, especially after reading Klentak's remarks on Machado. While Machado comes attached with some character issues, Harper's on-field performance has been more inconsistent. He didn't have a great 2018, hitting .249/.393/.496 with terrible defense that dragged down his WAR to just 1.3. Harper could have made this whole process a lot easier with a better season. You know the analytics departments have been crunching the numbers to project how Harper will perform not just over 10 years, but even in the immediate future.

Harper has power and a good eye at the plate. One concern about his future is that he had a career-worst 31.4 swing-and-miss rate (compared to 26.8 percent in 2017 and 23.1 percent in 2016). Maybe he was pressing. He did have a much better second half, hitting .300/.434/.538 and cutting his miss rate to 28.6 percent. Bottom line: If the Phillies weren't willing to go $300 million on Machado, are they willing to go $300 million on Harper? And if they're not, which team will?

Probably not. At Red Sox camp, when informed of Machado's deal, AL MVP Mookie Betts said, "There's still a lot more guys out there, so it's kind of hard to say. One of the best closers in the game is still out there [referring to Craig Kimbrel], a young guy who is one of the best in the game, too [referring to Harper], so it's kind of tough to say if it's good, but I guess it's a step in the right direction."

Arenado, a free agent after 2019, is discussing a long-term extension with the Rockies.

"I don't think [Machado] has too much of an effect on me. I'm not sure," Arenado said at Rockies camp. "I just know that I'm happy he signed. I think it's really good for baseball, a well-deserved contract. We need these guys signed and we need these guys playing ball."

Betts and Trout are free agents after 2020. Betts was likewise demure on how Machado's contract could affect his future.

"I mean, I think we're different players, so obviously it's going to be a different time," Betts said. "I don't want to speak on anybody else's free agency. I've just got to worry about my own."

At the beginning of the offseason, wild speculation was that Harper and Machado could receive $400 million contracts. That was never going to happen, with Harper coming off a shaky season and Machado's perceived character flaws. Arenado probably won't get there either, since he'll be entering his free agency at age 28 compared to 26 for Machado and Harper.

Betts and Trout, however? Stay tuned, my friends. We might get that $400 million deal in two years.

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