Inside Baseball: Making sense of the Harper, Machado buzz from MLB Winter Meetings

LAS VEGAS, Nev. — It feels like the two free agent mega stars — Manny Machado and Bryce Harper — are still weeks away from signing as they endeavor to set records for baseball’s biggest ever contract at $325-million plus.

Harper’s agent Scott Boras appeared under the Christmas tree at the Mandalay Bay and spoke again about what an “iconic” and “generational” talent his client is on the heels of several days’ worth of meetings with many teams, including one that’s apparently a mystery. A “mystery” owner was said to have shipped in for a clandestine off-site visit, but in reality, the whole market remains somewhat mysterious.

Meantime, Manny Machado’s agent Dan Lozano, who unlike Boras is never seen anymore, spent the meetings setting up future meetings, with at least three arranged but some question surrounding whether his three extra alleged unidentified teams – or “mystery teams,’ if you prefer – actually exist.

While we don’t seem much closer to a deal for either major star, there were a few hints, theories and stories heard that could be key to solving the somewhat mysterious markets.

Here’s what was heard or learned here …

— There’s a lot of buzz about the White Sox. “They are going to do something big,” one rival predicted.

While most of the buzz is speculative in nature, team president Kenny Williams announced they are in a transition phase, which surely means they are ready to start to try to play with the big boys. While some White Sox people acknowledge the timing isn’t perfect – that they aren’t quite yet ready to win, which might make the recruitment process a tad more difficult – they point out that they can’t control when the best players become free agents.

While they have tried hard for Machado in the past – and they are one of the three meeting with him – some believe now that Harper is their main target. Word came out via that top ChiSox people met with Harper and his camp even before arriving at the meeting.

While the timing isn’t perfect, the White Sox endured a stark drop in attendance, they suffer from low TV ratings for a city of that size and the crosstown Cubs recent runs seem to make them even more of a second team in the Second City.

“They need a star,” says a rival.

Longtime owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who knows something about stars (he had Michael Jordan as Bulls owner), couldn’t have been the mystery owner, as he was one of the most ever-present persons on these premises here at the Mandalay Bay hotel. He arrived early to attend the Hall of Fame veterans committee meeting, and helped usher one of his personal favorites Harold Baines into the Hall of Fame, to the dismay of some critics but the approval of a couple notable contemporaries, with some amazing persuasion that ended with the election of Baines, to the surprise of everyone, Baines himself included.

Anyway, Reinsdorf wound up staying the week, a rare occurrence for an owner at a Winter Meetings, raising the growing suspicion that the White Sox are indeed readying to do something big. Reinsdorf doesn’t have a big history of making deals with Boras, though Boras described their relationship as “respectful,” though Reinsdorf does occasionally step outside the box to go big, as he once did with Albert Belle (who received less than five votes by the same committee).

Hall of Fame player Jim Thome, an ex-ChiSox player who lives in the area, attended the Harper meeting. And while that couldn’t have hurt, Reinsdorf is the one who can be a very persuasive person. As one rival put it, “Just imagine him telling a recruit he sees him as the next Michael Jordan of the city.”

Reinsdorf declined comment on their intentions when asked. But his presence said something. And history said something more.

— The Phillies remain a competitor for both star players, though with their early winter moves, they bring one reason to wonder whether they are at all confident they’ll land either one. Everyone in Philly has been anticipating this winter for a couple years as the big one, but GM Matt Klentak seemed to lower expectations by saying this offseason was no different than any other offseason, and Bob Brookover of the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote about the possibility that Philly lands neither man gunning to top Giancarlo Stanton’s record $325-million deal.

The Phillies did a nice job to land a star shortstop Jean Segura and a star outfielder Andrew McCutchen, which not only bettered the team but looked like a way to cover themselves in case the improbable happened and they got neither mega star.

Though owner John Middleton spoke about how they planned to spend stupid money, of course they have to have someone to take it. While Philly is a historic city and a beloved one by a string of Phillies stars who appreciated the passion of the fan base, it isn’t the type of glitzy city that easily attracts stars from elsewhere. Word that Harper, as a frequent visitor while with the divisional rival Nats, isn’t necessarily enamored of Philly, was suggested in this space a couple weeks back. And what’s more, there’s some belief that both he and Machado wouldn’t mind winding up 90 miles to the north in New York.

Phillies people say they are still pursuing both players even after acquiring a big-time player for each of their positions. But you have to wonder, too, whether Machado might see the presence of another star shortstop as a potential complication since he’s made clear he doesn’t want to switch back to third base. 

While Machado is known and liked by almost the entire Philly front office, whose key members almost to a man were in Baltimore when Machado became the No. 3 overall pick in the 2010 draft (two spots behind Harper), he doesn’t look like a great fit in Philly for three reasons: 1) As mentioned, his shortstop spot seems to have been given away already, 2) The Phillies are already righty heavy after the acquisitions of Segura and McCutchen and trade of Carlos Santana. Three lefty swingers remain: Cesar Hernandez (a switch hitter) plus Nick Williams and Odubel Herrera, though all three could wind up on the block after their acquisitions. 3) Philly is a town that appreciates hard work, and Machado didn’t exactly endear himself to townspeople (based on the airwaves) by failing to run hard on a couple plays in October, then saying aloud that hustling really “isn’t my cup of tea.”

Harper, meantime, is left-handed, and if anything, runs too hard and plays too recklessly on occasion. That they’d like in Philly.


— The Dodgers are being speculated as a potential landing spot for Harper for a number of reasons. Among them: 1) They are busy trying to trade multiple outfielders, most notably Matt Kemp and Yasiel Puig, 2) They’ve reached 30 straight seasons without a World Championship after losing two in a row in the World Series, 3) They certainly can afford him following their best-in-the-sport TV deal, 4) the Dodgers are the closest thing to a hometown team for Harper, who is from right here in Las Vegas, 5) Team President Stan Kasten originally drafted him for the Nats, and 6) The Dodgers do seem  to like Harper, though a Dodgers person insisted he couldn’t see them going past $300 million, which fits their MO to keep contracts very reasonable.

The other reasons folks have focused on the Dodgers is the reported meeting that allegedly included part-Dodgers owner and Lakers icon Magic Johnson in Vegas. But that never happened. Yahoo, which originally reported the story that Johnson was at the meeting, retracted that cool nugget with use of a direct quote denying it from Magic himself.

What’s more, there’s reason to wonder whether the whole meeting occurred as suggested. One Dodgers person suggested their key people were scattered in places other than Las Vegas when the confab was said to have taken place. And when the story came out, Harper was said to have called a friend, and wondered, “Did I miss something?"

— The Yankees will meet with Machado while their interest in Harper seems to be nonexistent — at least for the moment. Machado has an in with his mentor Alex Rodriguez, a consultant to Yankees managing partner Hal Steinbrenner, but he also fits much better positionally with shortstop Didi Gregorius out for at least a half a year following Tommy John surgery and the outfield corners filled by two stars comparable to Harper — Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge.

Cashman after suggesting for weeks that Harper didn’t fit, came out and said as much here in Las Vegas. But Cashman seemed to massage those words the very next day, telling New York writers in response to Boras’ suggestion that things can change: “I don’t have any reaction other than to say we try to promote that we are a progressive and open-minded operation and that every day is different, that we are prepared to pivot and react if things change … if the rosters adjust. If something doesn’t make sense today, it doesn’t mean that it won’t make sense tomorrow. All I can tell you is where our current focuses are. But at the same time, we’re a fully operational death star.”

It was a great quote, especially the part about the “death star.” But that certainly doesn’t mean that things will change.

— What about one of the other teams that have seemed to make sense? The Cardinals haven’t made the playoffs three straight years and are sitting on a pile of cash thanks to their great business model, or what Boras called, “The Big Bank of St. Louis.” The Giants have spent to win but they have too many high-priced veterans as things stand now, with little hope to win, at least in the immediate future. The Mets are ready to make some big splashes but probably not this big; and in Machado’s case, they have determined he is “not our type of guy.” The Cubs have pulled some surprises before, but even though they won 95 games again last year, they seem to be looking more cautiously at the market after a couple missteps in last year’s market.

Jon Heyman is Fancred's baseball insider. He publishes his weekly Inside Baseball column each Thursday on the App and You can download the App here and interact with Jon by following him right here.