There are more than 100 players left on the free agent market, or to put it another way, all but the few who have signed in what looks like another slower than slow market. Which makes us (and everyone else, too) think that the two mega stars – Bryce Harper and Manny Machado -- that make this market one of the most special ever, will be free for a while. Quite a while.
“These guys may won’t sign until January, maybe February,” one interested exec predicted.
Which, if true, will give us plenty of time to speculate.
At this point, which still has to be considered the very beginning of the process, the smart money is suggesting the Phillies and Yankees are favorites. And that makes sense.
The Phillies’ perpetually enthusiastic owner John Middleton suggested they may spend “stupid money,” which confirms everything we’ve heard for months. The way he’s talking, one rival sniffed, “The Phillies could become the first 500 million dollar team.”
There’s word some other top Phillies decisionmakers are trying to rein in the owner, which is a switch. But for now they are a strong competitor for both mega stars, and though they seem slightly more enamored with Harper than Machado at the moment (that’s only from reading between the lines), that doesn’t preclude the possibility they could sign both superstars. While it is a decided long shot, it hasn’t been ruled out.
Since we know the Yankees, who are being a little more discreet (how could you not?), have stupid money (whether they admit it or not), and also have a history of spending stupid money (or at least a lot of it) and have reset their luxury tax rate downward to set themselves up to spend more, they have to be considered serious contenders. That's before you consider they can’t be too thrilled that the rival Red Sox won it all again. The smart money says they get one of the two big stars. They say it won’t be Harper, but others aren’t so sure. “He fits them so good in the ballpark and the lineup,” one rival said of Harper and the Yankees.
But a Yankees person insisted this talk is going around only for one reason: “Teams are afraid of the Yankees.”
That may be so. But the one team that appears to be in direct competition for not one or even two players but perhaps the three biggest players on the market, also once beat the Yankees for a huge star (ace Cliff Lee). That, of course, is the Phillies.
The interesting dynamic here is that the Phillies, unusually, may actually hold a slight spending advantage over baseball’s traditional behemoths by virtue of their $2.5 billion TV deal, unbridled enthusiasm and a lack of committed dollars going forward compared to the Yankees (or most any big-market team). And New York, which at least on some occasions in the past has scared off some free agents who shied away from the biggest stage, seems to be the preferred destination for both the mega stars, at least from what we hear anecdotally, as well as star No. 3, or so they think.
We wrote about Machado’s alleged preference to become a Yankee several weeks back, and that really shouldn’t be such a surprise since his mentor is Alex Rodriguez, who helped engineer a deal to the Yankees, loved being a Yankee and currently holds down the apparent dual role of Yankee adviser and Machado adviser, which very likely could smooth the proposed Yankees interrogation about Machado regarding his odd on-field October behavior, and his too-honest comments about his lack of hustle (memorably, he said to Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic that to hustle was “not my cup of tea”) before he was set up to try to retract his candor a full month later.
(Aside: One rival agent, not with either of the two mega stars, says that Machado’s handlers completely mishandled the situation, allowing it to settle and fester, then lamely attempted to walk back the comments a month later in a second article rather than making a real commitment to correct what was plain for all to see — that on offense hustling isn’t his bag ... or cup of tea, or whatever).
In contrast that agent pointed out that Harper is out in public doing fun things and burnishing his reputation (he was the celebrity picker for ESPN's college football Gameday last week, and actually picked all but two games correctly), to the point where they have, in effect, switched places. It was just prior to the postseason where two-thirds of execs polled here picked Machado to land the bigger deal, with a better rep being cited by a handful of those execs as one big reason. Said the agent not involved: Harper is on the upswing, and it’ll be a surprise if he doesn’t get the bigger deal now.
One exec with an interested team also notes that it appears, at least to him, that there are many more teams on Harper than Machado. That may just be a perception (but we try to decipher who’s interested in whom with a 10-team list below).
The pair of young superstars has something in common though, as Harper also is believed to love the idea of going to the Yankees and New York (that’s what he’s told some confidants anyway). We do know that he is a student of history, and wears 34 to honor Yankee great Mickey Mantle, who wore 7 (3 plus 4).
Considering dollars and preferences and especially the involvement of multiple players, this is likely to easily top the Cliff Lee sweepstakes, when the Phillies came out of nowhere to become the very first “mystery team” to beat the Yankees for the pitching star’s services. In that case, the role was reversed; the Yankees had the higher offer but Lee preferred to return to the Phillies. (Players always seem to like Philly better after living there; it doesn’t seem very glamorous to visiting players, and word is, Harper also told friends Philly wasn’t his first choice in terms of city.)
In terms of team needs, Philly could probably go either way (though one rival GM suggested he sees more need on the infield than the outfield) while the Yankees are at least suggesting publicly that they are looking closely at Machado while considering Harper more from a distance, at best. (While one Yankees type flat out says, “He doesn’t fit,” they’ve listened to agent Scott Boras make the pitch multiple times that Harper is fully capable of playing first base, and they have done more than a little investigating of their own on the subject.)
Yankees execs have downplayed the Harper possibility, but one rival GM suggests that is simply their style; it was in the case of Mark Teixeira, who seemed like a nice surprise bonus after gathering pitchers C.C. Sabathia and A.J. Burnett in the winter of 2008-09.
One rival exec predicts of Harper and Machado, “One of them with go to the Phillies, the other to the Yankees.”
Of course, that’s only a prediction, but it’s one you hear. It will be a surprise if the Phillies don’t land one of the two superstars after the “stupid money” proclamation, and the Yankees do look like a potential fit for either player, even if they don’t/won’t admit it. (Harper is, after all, lefthanded, and one has to wonder how certain they are that Luke Voit is the first base answer.)
The Philly-New York battle could actually extend to a third player, and arguably the third best player on the market. That is lefthanded pitcher Patrick Corbin, who makes it three-for-three in the pinstripe admiration category and is visiting New York Thursday. Corbin’s own Yankee love actually was memorialized early this season in an interview in USA Today with Bob Nightengale (the Diamondbacks didn’t love that).
The Yankees believe he wants to be a Yankee. Of course, Corbin visited Philly Tuesday, and like the Yankees, Philly is intent on adding another pitcher. They are even more intent on adding a lefthander (and again, there’s that dumb money), which caused one rival GM to predict the Phillies may upset the Yankees in this endeavor.
One person in the know said there are also several “surprise” teams in on Corbin, which loosely translated, may mean anyone but the Phillies and Yankees. We also do know about the Nats, who received a visit between Philly and New York, and the Braves and Angels – his first team – make sense, as well.
But of course, the main attention is on the two mega stars. And when you have players this good, and this young, you never know who might come out to play. Some teams may be scared off by the “stupid” money comment, which might make that comment smarter than it seems. But the best guess is that these 10 teams may be in the best position to land one or the other. (Or in Philly’s case, both, if they reach idiotic cash levels.)
1) Phillies: Almost the entire Phillies front office knows Machado from when they were in the Orioles front office and Machado was made the No. 3 pick overall (they didn’t have the chance at Harper, who went No. 1 that year), though it doesn’t seem like they are leaning toward him (again, just my semi-educated guess). Word coming out of the City of Brotherly Love, there is far less love for Machado on the airwaves these days, as they are smart sports fans and believed his original comments about his lack of hustle. They also saw Harper come into town nine games a year for the past six years. Positionally, Machado may be a slightly better fit, as they really don’t have a proven shortstop (his preferred spot) and Maikel Franco is a bit up and down at third, not to mention a free agent in a year. Plus there are other decent outfield alternatives to Harper (A.J. Pollock, Michael Brantley) while the other shortstops beyond Machado are strictly glove men (i.e. Jose Iglesias, Freddy Galvis, Adeiny Hechavarria). The Phillies did meet with Josh Donaldson, which could mean they might have lived without Machado — or it could just mean they understand infield is their need. “That only makes sense if they are trading Franco,” one rival exec said. And yes, well, that likely would have been the case. They have “lots of outfielders,” one rival pointed out, though Rhys Hoskins should be in the infield and none of them should preclude a run at Harper. Odds to sign one: 1-5. Odds to sign both: 10-1.
2) Yankees: Managing partner Hal Steinbrenner has said aloud multiple times that he seriously wants to hear Machado’s explanation for October for himself when they visit, and from here that’s a tell. That’s the best evidence yet about how serious they are about Machado, who they chased twice previously, and even when they were full up on the left side of the infield. Now they have a hole at shortstop following the surprising need for Didi Gregorius to have Tommy John surgery, which should keep him out into the second half. One Yankees person said while they like Machado, they don’t like him to the point of $300 million, and that might just be the start of negotiations. Meanwhile, they are saying Harper doesn’t really fit. Boras is selling them on the TV value of bringing in the “iconic” (his word) player at a time they are trying to buy YES back from FOX. Yankees people say their ratings are great as is. And there is the question of how big a risk $300 million would be for an untested first baseman. Harper did take grounders at first at times over the last two years, and folks think he can be just as good at first as he is in the outfield (that’s a compliment, I think?). Odds to sign one: 1-1.
3) Nationals: While their offer for Harper of Sept. 26 for about $300 million over 10 years looks like mostly window dressing (it included neither a no-trade or even one opt-out, which are almost perfunctory in the superstar contract of the day), word is that GM Mike Rizzo loves Harper, as if anyone couldn’t tell it from his comments, and that the team-owning Lerners may love him even more. While Ted Lerner has been weirdly cheap when it comes to managers and some other key non-playing personnel, baseball’s believed-to-be richest owner has never skimped when it comes to his players. Lerner is also close to 90 and presides over a powerhouse bedeviled by October disappointments. Some say they aren’t quite as enamored by their outfield sans Harper as they suggest. While Juan Soto is obviously a prodigy, Victor Robles is unproven, Michael Taylor is inconsistent (though maybe underrated) and Adam Eaton may be unwanted (more on that in the Nats notes to come). Odds to sign one: 5-1.
4) Cardinals: We keep waiting for the Cardinals to make their big move, and some day they will. It isn’t completely for a lack of trying. While the $200-million bid for their own star Albert Pujols looked more like a nod to his exploits rather than a truly spirited effort to keep him, they did offer close to that for both Jason Heyward and David Price, who chose to sign with the Cubs and Red Sox respectively. A left-handed bat would be a big help, and owner Bill DeWitt clearly didn’t rule it out in a recent interview in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. DeWitt is one of the smartest businessmen running a baseball team, making one astute financial move after another, and some believe a third straight year out of the playoffs for the consistently good team has raised frustration to a new height, which just may cause them to make the big play. Odds to sign one: 10-1.
5) White Sox: The White Sox understand that the timing isn’t perfect for a run at a free agent in that their rebuild is still at least a year away from approaching fruition, which means that a great free agent will have to understand he’s in for at least one year of avoiding looking at the standings. That may not be such a big deal when we are talking about a contract of at least 10 years, which these are expected to be. They are definitely considering it, and one rival suggested that the White Sox are hoping to make “a big splash.” Machado looks like the more likely splash beneficiary, as they have tried for him before. There is a likely need for a third baseman, though it’s fair to say the outfield is a work in progress, too. They have superb outfield prospects in Luis Robert, Eloy Jimenez and Blake Rutherford but only Jimenez is expected to be ready sometime this season (meaning sometime early in his case). Owner Jerry Reinsdorf has pulled some surprises over the years (i.e Albert Belle) but one thing he hasn’t done much is work with Boras (Carlos Rodon, a much smaller deal, is one notable exception.) Odds to sign one: 15-1.
6) Cubs: They don’t seem to be in a big spending mood. They began the winter by delaying the decision to pick up Cole Hamels’$20-million option to make sure they cleared some payroll space first (they did so by dealing Drew Smyly). They also have a history of straining to stay under the luxury tax threshold. There is that narrative about how Harper’s best friend is Kris Bryant, a boyhood buddy from Las Vegas, but that hasn’t been heard a lot lately. They also have an issue with longtime shortstop Addison Russell, but he has plainly stated he intends to become a better person, and the Cubs may be ready to forgive and move on. (though in any case, he is no Machado.) Odds to sign one: 20-1.
7) Mets: The Mets have ruled out Machado. “Not our kind of guy,” one Mets person said. Others sniffed: yeah right, because he's too expensive. There’s no word yet they have ruled out a run at Harper. But if the Mets have an abundance of anything beyond starting pitchers, it is left-handed hitting corner outfielders, with Brandon Nimmo, Michael Conforto and Jay Bruce (new GM Brodie Van Wagenen has made clear he likes Conforto and Nimmo, a client of CAA, Van Wagenen’s old company, on the corners). The other issue of course is money. They have done the long tango with Boras in the past, and it resulted in the signing of Carlos Beltran, who actually had three of his best seasons in Queens, though he is unfairly recalled for freezing on Adam Wainwright’s un-hittable curve. Odds to sign one: 25-1.
8) Giants: The Giants tried for Giancarlo Stanton last year. But the best guess with the new “Next Gen” GM, they may finally look to reboot. Give the Giants credit for trying to keep their heroes and keep winning. But it would seem that reality is setting in, and the new baseball chief, Farhan Zaidi, has to know how far ahead his old team, the Dodgers are, as Dan O’Dowd pointed out on MLB Network. There are those that say Zaidi is a gambler who was held back by the more calculating, conservative Andrew Friedman these past few years. But the timing just doesn’t look right for the big move. If anything, they appear to be thinking about going the other way, which might mean a sale of a few key pieces, including legendary pitching star Madison Bumgarner. Odds to sign one: 30-1.
9) Dodgers: There was that Los Angeles report (link) that the Dodgers’ move to get below the luxury tax may not have been a one-time deal and that they may actually try to maintain a reasonable payroll another half decade, and if that’s the case, its hard to see either one of these players fitting. Odds to sign one: 30-1.
10) Astros: They seem focused on adding a catcher and starting pitcher to go with an outfielder of lower profile, and haven’t been connected to Harper beyond the revelation via The Athletic that they nearly traded for Harper at the deadline (but that’s a lot different than dishing out $300 million plus). Odds to sign one: 40-1.
11) Field: The Red Sox are concentrating on the bullpen, the Mariners are in sell mode and the Rangers are believed to be saving up for the new stadium. Unlikely any of the remaining 20 plays here. Odds to sign one: 17-1.
Jon Heyman is Fancred's baseball insider. He publishes his weekly Inside Baseball column each Thursday on the App and FancredSports.com. You can download the App here and interact with Jon by following him right here.