This winter two of the greatest free agent position players in years, maybe ever — Manny Machado and Bryce Harper — will be aiming to set a record for largest contract, which is currently held by Giancarlo Stanton at $325 million over 13 years.
They will also be looking to beat each other – before Angels superstar Mike Trout will very likely have the chance to beat them both later in the winter.
RELATED: Machado, maybe Harper like Yankees, but Phillies may be more likely
An informal unscientific poll of 18 executives suggested an outcome at least in terms of the winner that will likely surprise folks. It also produced some interesting comments as to the reasons for their calls -- and also some very strong opinions.
One exec saw it as so close he figured it'd come down to whoever waited to sign after the other, figuring they'd just make sure to get a dollar or two more. A few execs saw a clear difference, but they were in the minority.
“They’re both pretty darned good,” concluded one exec who favored Machado.
Yes, of course, but who will look better to baseball execs and win the winter?
Before we get to the results, let’s take a look at the factors, from most important to least:
1) Hitting ability: Harper gets the edge here. He’s had two seasons of 1.000 plus OPS (and one over 1.100) and might have two had MVPs – he has one -- if he hadn’t suffered an injury that kept him out for weeks toward the end of last year at a time he was a frontrunner, if not the frontrunner. (Machado has finished as high as fourth.) Harper's one of the best sluggers in the game. Fans love power, and owners will pay for it, so this is a big factor. Machado is an elite hitter as well, and even last year, when he had a rather mundane .782 OPS, he led the league in hard-hit balls, suggesting he was unlucky.
2) Recency: Machado has been better overall this year, though Harper is narrowing a real gap. Harper has been brilliant in the second half, following his victory at home in the Home Run Derby, raising his OPS to near .900 (he’s at .893 to .924 for Machado) after a rough first half that would have made him an unlikely All-Star if not for his popularity among fans. Meanwhile Machado has been superb throughout. He was better for the Orioles, though, where he had the advantage of Camden Yards, than he has been for the Dodgers (but has still been very solid at the more pitcher friendly Dodger Stadium as well). “Machado is more consistent, more WAR, more defensive skill. That equals more $,” one exec texted.
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3) Defense: Machado is one of the best in baseball, if he goes back to third base, which friends say he might be willing to do for the right team (i.e., the Yankees). The defensive metrics, though, suggest he is below average or even worse at shortstop (though the eye test suggests he’s OK). Harper’s metrics aren’t great in the outfield, but he’s good enough to have played a lot of center field and has a strong arm. Machado “has an ability to play premium positions,’ says one exec, using an an oft-heard word from Harper’s own agent Scott Boras about his previous clients. Machado “has more position/defensive value,” texted one of the execs. “He plays on the dirt,” notes yet another.
4) Age: They are both extremely young for free agents. Harper is one of the youngest ever, at 25. And Machado isn’t much older, at 26. One exec suggested Machado “plays the game easier,” which he surmised could lead to a longer career. But another said, “I’d give Harper the nod with the age and I’m guessing cleaner bill of health."
5) Intangibles: Harper is out there a lot, and while that may rub a
few folks the wrong way, it cuts both ways, as there’s surely added
value in having a player with his name recognition, stature and fame.
Boras would call this "iconic" value, and while front-office execs like
those surveyed here may not factor it into their projected values,
owners (who were not part of this survey) will count that big-time, as
it translates to dollars. And that cachet value is surely very real.
Harper's occasional outspokenness is seen as a plus or minus depending
on who you're talking to, but there are signs of real leadership in the
last couple years. It's true some don't love Harper, though the
complaints heard are fairly shallow (and generally made by folks who
don't know him well; Mike Rizzo, the Nats' GM, who was not part of this
survey, knows Harper best and absolutely loves him.) Anyway, one exec
suggested he's a "me guy," but to be fair, he has shown nothing but
loyalty to the Nats. Organizational favoritism has been claimed but if
that's happening, it isn't his doing. One mentioned "too many
endorsements" when that's only true when compared to other baseball
players (and more importantly, could actually bring attention to his
team, which has a value and is positive in this day when baseball needs
more publicity). Yes, there's no doubt he's a lightning rod, probably
since appearing on that Sports Illustrated cover at 16. He plays like
his hair's on fire 99 percent of the time, but if there's one time he
doesn't hustle, it's a national (sorry about the pun) debate forever.
Machado was called out by Reds announcers for not running out a popup by
the foul line Wednesday, but that was the extent of it (and who was
watching the Reds game anyway?) Every star has some detractors but
Machado generally gets points for his easy demeanor and a “likeability”
factor. “There’s a little less drama” with Machado, says one of the
execs. “Less maintenance (real or perceived)” another Machado fan among
the execs surmised. Harper has even been faulted by a few for not
getting the Nats over the top while no one's said the same about Machado
(they shouldn't say it about either). It just seems there's a double
standard when it comes to Harper and almost anyone else. And though it
exists, ultimately the perceived negatives may not matter a bit. When it
come to the contract, though, the cachet may play.
6) Markets: Harper seems to have some more obvious interested teams with the incumbent Nats joined by the Phillies, Dodgers (interestingly Harper may be a better fit for Macahdo's Dodgers, though they haven’t had any interest in monster free-agent deals since the new regime arrived), Giants and Cubs. Machado could interest teams looking for a shortstop or third baseman, though in recent years there haven’t been a lot of teams with those needs, and free agents at those positions have been disappointed at times. The old belief is that an infielder who hits is generally more valuable than an outfielder who hits. So it's no surprise, a couple executives gave Machado the edge here (though some gave it to Harper). One went so far as to look at specific team needs. “With Boston and the Yankees having set outfields, that would seem to take them out of Harper. On the other hand, I could see both of them in on Machado,” that exec says. (though those teams aren’t especially weak on the left side of the infield, either) Yet another thought the left-side infield slots were stacked, as we’ve seen free agents struggle to get offers lately. “Not as many quality teams need a third baseman or a short stop,” one exec who favored Harper texted.
7) Injury History: The Orioles offered Machado a long-term deal but never revisited the issue after he tore up his knee. Depending on what the medicals say, that could affect the years. Though the Orioles obviously wish he had taken that deal – or even double that deal – and Machado has made the transition to shortstop, teams will want to see what the medicals say. Harper has had a few injuries, though no one injury quite as serious as Machado's knee, which was suffered early in his career. Even so, one exec worried Harper's “aggressiveness” would give him pause.
8) Agents: While Harpers’ agent Scott Boras no longer has the record for the biggest contract (that's Joel Wolfe with that Stanton deal), he has the second- and third-biggest deals ever, and considering that A-Rod had an opt out in his first record $252-million deal, and turned it into a new $275-million deal, that first deal actually led to $464 million (counting the $189 million held already cashed on the first deal). Boras has been seen as the No. 1 agent, and when it comes to stars, he rarely leaves a penny on the table (Max Scherzer, Prince Fielder, Jayson Werth, Chris Davis, Jacoby Ellsbury, Shin-Soo Choo, Barry Bonds, etc.) Machado’s agent Dan Lozano has had a couple monster deals himself, the $250-million Albert Pujols contract and the $225-million, pre-free agency Joey Votto deal. Two of the execs who picked Harper cited Boras as a key reason, however. One exec said he’d bet on Harper due to the “Boras factor.” And another flat said, “Harper – his agent will hold out until the very end.” Making things more interesting, there’s no love lost between these two agents. Machado used to be a client of Boras, who like a lot of other agents was not impressed by the revelations in the well-known Deadspin piece on Lozano. And people who know Lozano say he is “fixated” on Boras, at some point explaining the decision to turn down previous good-but-not-great offers this way: “Boras would (freak out),” or words to that effect. He reputedly said something along those lines while turning down an early Orioles offer that was believed to have been worth about $64 million for eight years as we can report this week, in a decision that turned out to be a very good one even though the sides were believed to be only $1 million to $2 million per year apart at the time, and Machado wound up tearing up his knee that same season.
9) Focus on dollars: Almost all free agents will admit the deal is the main goal, and many of those who don’t are fibbing. Harper has mentioned a love for the Nats and Washington D.C. and there’s no reason to think that’s not true, but he seems to be like most free agents. These guys are driven to compete, and when it comes to the contract things are no different. There have been suggestions and hints that Machado so much likes the idea of going to the Yankees that he’d be willing to sacrifice even his beloved shortstop position to do that. Would he also sacrifice dollars?
10) Shifting winds: The MLB competition committee is seriously looking at the shift rule, and there seems to be real consideration being given to limiting shifts, which would help Harper's market. As Boras mentioned here, the extreme shifts and lack of rules curtailing them are hurting left-handed sluggers. MLB’s competition committee, though not necessarily listening to Boras, is looking at it. That would potentially be a big plus for Harper, whose .249 batting average isn't reflective of a high hard-hit rate.
11) Qualifying offer: The draft loss for signing a player with a qualifying offer isn’t as great at it was, but it’s probably a cost of a few million. So the playing field isn’t perfectly level. Harper will have one once the Nats extend the qualifying offer, and by rules, due to his trade to the Dodgers, Machado will not. So that helps him a bit.
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Considering Harper is the better and more dangerous hitter among two great ones -- his career OPS plus is 139 to 121 for Machado -- and is slightly younger, one might think he’d lead, despite some small (and mostly unfair) perceived imperfections. And if the vote were taken a year go, it might have been unanimous — or close to it — in his favor.
But, with Harper’s slow start and Machado’s big one, things reversed, at least in this poll among execs.
Ultimately, there's a decent chance they are wrong. Though Machado's all-around play and smoother rep carried this day with execs, ultimately power, fame and youth (by a year, anyway) may play better with the owners who are paying the bills.
But without further ado ...
Of the 18 executives, a hard-to-believe 12 chose Machado, with just six betting on Harper. And two of those who chose Harper to get the bigger contract cited this unusual reason: his agent.
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.