In the end, Manny Machado got his record-breaking contract, and sometime soon – maybe by the All-Star break? – Bryce Harper will get his as well. For that you must give their respective agents, Dan Lozano and Scott Boras, their due: They are able to sell their clients as the best players in the game and thus worthy of the highest contracts in the game.
There is a reason, however, why neither Harper nor Machado will be playing this season where they wanted to, and it isn’t necessarily because of the luxury tax penalties. Plain and simple: Teams like the Yankees, Dodgers, Cubs and Red Sox didn’t think Harper and Machado were the best players in the game and thus worthy of record-breaking contracts – as the Rangers and Yankees gave Alex Rodriguez when (pre-steroids) he was regarded as the best player in the game in 2000 and 2009, or the Marlins gave Giancarlo Stanton in 2016, or the Angels gave Mike Trout in 2014.
In an informal poll I took last week, a dozen scouts and baseball executives rated the best players in the game. Harper and Machado both came in behind Trout, the Red Sox’s Mookie Betts, the Rockies’ Nolan Arenado, the Indians’ Francisco Lindor and the Astros’ Jose Altuve. When it came to Harper, some said they would even rather have Aaron Judge over the long haul, while a couple of others said they would rather have Harper’s own Nationals’ teammate, Anthony Rendon, who, I’m told, will very likely soon be signing an extension with Washington once Harper officially signs elsewhere.
For the Padres, the 10 years, $300 million for Machado made sense for a lot of reasons, the most important being, with $40 million in revenue sharing coming into their coffers every year and a projected $100 million payroll for 2019 (before the signing), they can more than afford him. With one of the top rated player development systems in baseball, the Padres are a team on the come-up and were able to sell Machado on the idea they will be ready to contend possibly as soon as the second year of his contract. It may be, too, Padres GM A.J. Preller will try to expedite that process by dealing for a proven front line starting pitcher like the Indians’ Corey Kluber. He’s got the chips to get him.
On the other hand, if, as now appears likely, Harper winds up signing with the Phillies, that would not make sense for them. Well, other than (temporarily) satisfying their fans’ lust for a major free agent. That frenzy was fueled by their owner John Middleton’s foolish remark that he was prepared to spend “stupid money” this winter (to land a Harper or Machado).
For one thing, Harper clearly doesn’t want to go to Philadelphia. If he did, he’d have signed by now. For another, even if they sign Harper, the Phillies’ starting rotation is a far cry from those of the Nationals and Mets – and pitching is always the name of the game.
A rival NL East scout had this interesting observation about the Phillies’ pursuit of Harper: “I don’t understand why they would want to spend all that money on Harper when they could spend the same $34 million a year on short term deals for (Dallas) Keuchel and (Craig) Kimbrel. They’ve done a lot of good things this winter, getting (Jean) Segura for shortstop, stealing the best catcher in the game (J.T.) Realmuto from Miami, adding (Andrew) McCutchen in the outfield and (David) Robertson for the bullpen. What they don’t have is enough starting pitching and a closer. Harper’s not going to make them a winner.”
Another exec pointed out that tying up so much payroll in Harper might also preclude the Phillies from being players for Trout in two years if he chooses to opt out of his contract.
“Trout’s the guy who should get the $400 million Boras said Harper was worth,” the exec said, “and for the Phillies, who are essentially his hometown team, he’d be worth every penny of that. But can a team – any team – afford to have some $70 million payroll tied up in just two players and still stay under the (luxury tax) threshold? I don’t see how if they want to be competitive, especially given the price of pitching.”