The wait for Manny Machado and Bryce Harper continues. There are cobwebs hanging like frayed wash on a line from the narratives of how each could help the Phillies become champions.
The wait stretches on. By comparison, Godot stepped out for a latte and was back before you knew it. A call to a customer service line on Monday morning is barely a blink of an eye. Highway construction finishes overnight. The signing of a marquee baseball free agent? That takes a while.
By nearly all clear-eyed estimations — which is to say, in the opinion of their agents — both Machado and Harper will eventually agree to contracts worth more than $30 million per season for somewhere between eight and 10 years.
The Phillies are one of only a handful of teams interested in either player. In their case, they are interested in both, although not even the deep pockets of owner John Middleton have room for more than one.
Middleton previously promised that the Phillies, on the brink of whatever it is they are on the brink of, are prepared to spend “stupid money” in the free-agent market this offseason.
He’s a lot better businessman than I am, but that strikes me as a poor negotiating ploy, akin to laying down one’s cards prior to the final bet. Nevertheless, it was the tactic he employed, perhaps to scare off competing teams, perhaps to energize a fan base that could use some of that.
So far, it hasn’t worked. Machado and Harper are still on the market while their agents, Dan Lozano and Scott Boras, do a cobra-mongoose thing as they vie for the title of Greatest Sports Agent Ever This Week. What the players, both 26, want themselves — aside from the money — is unknown.
Machado, a left-side infielder of questionable clubhouse character, whose WAR numbers have dropped significantly since 2015 and 2016, is said to be pursued by mostly the Phillies and White Sox. (Don’t get me wrong. He is really good.)
Harper, an outfielder who was MVP in 2015 and has continued to post consistent stats, is being courted by the Dodgers and Phillies, although the Nationals, his previous team, are not out of the picture.
There is always the possibility the Yankees, the Red Sox, and perhaps the Cubs will swoop into any conversation, but a reading of the market for the two most coveted available players in baseball suggests it is thin. Why would that be?
“I think most of it is that teams aren't excited to sign anyone to 10-plus-year contracts. They are almost all bad deals,” a major-league executive told CBS Sports. “Certainly both players at their ages have advantages over most players who are free agents three, four, and five years older. But most teams are too rational to feel great about giving out 10-year contracts to anyone.”
There are other explanations. Not every franchise has “stupid money” scattered about. Small-market teams have to live within the margins of what their revenue will allow. The 30 teams generate in excess of $9 billion in revenue, but nearly half of that is compiled by the 10 richest teams (of which the Phillies are one).
That is part of the equation, certainly, but, as the executive suggested, the mega-contracts represent an all-eggs-in-one-basket approach that doesn’t always yield a quality omelet. For every major signing like David Price to the Red Sox or Mark Teixeira to the Yankees that resulted in a good return (and a World Series ring), there is an Albert Pujols to the Angels or a Robinson Cano to the Mariners that didn’t significantly alter a team’s course.
Middleton wants to win another championship, naturally, but the course he might be most concerned with altering is at the box office. The Phillies drew more than the National League average in each of their first 10 seasons in Citizens Bank Park. In the five seasons that have followed, they have been below the league average every year, and total home attendance, which peaked at 3.78 million in 2010, has averaged 1.95 million since 2015.
Last year’s unexpected success through the middle of the summer provided an uptick in interest and attendance, but the way things ended drained the air from the balloon. Signing either Machado or Harper would get the phones ringing in the ticket office again.
Spreading the jackpot among two or three players over the next decade might be a more prudent economic model, but it wouldn’t bring the same jolt of excitement. “Stupid money” doesn’t always win, but it does generate the most interest. In that regard, it can be considered smart.