If it makes sense to the Washington Nationals to guarantee six years and $140 million to a pitcher who has had one elite season in his career, well, that’s their business. But as the Phillies fell short Tuesday in the Patrick Corbin derby, it became even clearer that their offseason will judged by one transaction.
It's Manny Machado (or Bryce Harper) or bust.
The Nationals might not have needed Corbin any more than the Phillies did, but the Phillies need Machado or Harper far more than the Nationals do. And if they are going to succeed in their pursuit of either 26-year-old free-agent megastar, the Phillies will have to outbid the field, which means overspending -- and possibly by quite a bit.
John Middleton has memorably said he’s prepared to be “a little bit stupid” about spending money this winter. But there’s a limit to how stupid even the Phillies' billionaire owner can be. Imagine how dumb it would have looked if overextending to give Corbin the sixth year that seemingly meant so much to him wound up constraining Middleton from eventually bowling over Machado or Harper with an offer they can’t refuse.
Let there be no doubt that the Phillies wanted Corbin. They hosted him for a recruiting visit last week and tried to help him envision pitching at Citizens Bank Park by superimposing a Phillies cap onto his picture and putting it on Phanavision. They reportedly made him a five-year offer and hoped he would choose them over the Nationals and the New York Yankees, his favorite team growing up near Syracuse, N.Y.
But the Phillies can take other, cheaper paths to satisfying their need for a left-handed starting pitcher. They can sign free agent J.A. Happ or trade for Arizona’s Robbie Ray or San Francisco’s Madison Bumgarner. Or they could pursue Yusei Kikuchi, the Japanese lefty whom they scouted last season and who was posted by the Seibu Lions this week.
They can't afford to miss out on Machado or Harper, though. Not after getting the fewest hits in the majors last season or finishing 23rd with a .393 team slugging percentage. They need a game-changing hitter, and Machado and Harper happen to be among the elite players in the sport.
Machado grew up idolizing Alex Rodriguez and is thought to prefer signing with the Yankees. He also prefers to play shortstop, and the Yankees have at least a short-term need in that position after Didi Gregorius underwent Tommy John elbow surgery.
The market for Harper is still taking shape, and although the Nationals' nine-figure commitment to Corbin might take them out of the running, general manager Mike Rizzo sent signals last month that they are ready to replace the face of their franchise with top prospect Victor Robles. But if the Los Angeles Dodgers are sniffing around Harper, as Yahoo! Sports reported on Tuesday, they would instantly become the favorite to land him in a similar fashion to the Lakers luring LeBron James last summer.
The Phillies will need to convince Machado or Harper to come here, and their best asset is Middleton’s money. If drawing a line at five years for Corbin helps free up as much cash as possible, the restraint will have been well worth it.