Turns out, there was only a certain amount stupid that the Phillies were willing to go. At least, that was the case when it came to Manny Machado. Ten years and $300 million might sound like a lot of coin to schlubs like us, but when you consider the unprecedented nature of his free agency, that sum is on the low side of the spectrum one might have expected when John Middleton and the Phillies declared themselves open for business earlier this offseason.
The real story isn’t that Machado hit the $300 million mark, or that the Padres decided that they could afford to give it to him. Rather, it’s that no big-market club was willing to go that high for a player with the defensive versatility to find a home in virtually any lineup. Some might read that as an indication of baseball’s new era of fiscal restraint. And, to a certain degree, that interpretation is probably correct. But there’s also a strong argument to make that the reluctance of teams like the Dodgers and Phillies and Yankees should ultimately be viewed as a referendum on the player himself.
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In other words, I’m not sure that it’s wise to draw many conclusions about what the Machado deal portends for Bryce Harper, who is now the lone big fish remaining on the free-agent hitter market. You can bet every chip in your stack that Harper ends up north of $300 million. And it shouldn’t come as a surprise if the Phillies are willing to go well north of that for him.
A lot of this depends on your initial assumptions about Machado’s market value. From the jump, it was an almost impossible thing to project, given the fact that players like him have rarely reached free agency in baseball’s modern economic era. Not since Alex Rodriguez has a hitter with Machado’s production at a premium infield position hit the open market while still in his mid-20′s. Back then, the market ended up valuing him at 10 years and $252 million. Six offseasons ago, the Mariners signed a 31-year-old Robinson Cano to a 10-year, $240 million contract on the open market. During the previous regular season, the Tigers signed 30-year-old Miguel Cabrera to an eight-year, $248 million extension that would not even begin until his 33-year-old season.
Machado will turn 27 years old this season, his new contract guaranteeing him money through his 35-year-old campaign. In terms of its coincidence with the typical aging curve for an athlete, the deal would seem to carry far less risk than the ones inked by Cano and Cabrera, both of whom will still be under contract at 40 years old. When you consider those deals, and you factor in inflation, one could assume the present day value for transcendence would be north of where it ended up.
If, that is, the market truly valued Machado as transcendent.
I’m not sure that it did, and, conversely, I’m not sure that it won’t in the case of Harper.
From a standpoint of age, Machado may have posed less risk than any free agent since Rodriguez. But as a player, he offers a lot more uncertainty than Harper does at the same age. It would not surprise me in the least if he ended up costing himself money with his flippant response about his effort this past postseason. There was already some reason to worry about his consistency. No doubt, his .905 OPS and 37 home runs in 2018 was one of the best offensive seasons from an infielder in the drug-testing era. But the previous season saw him post a .782 OPS while reaching base at a .310 clip, marks similar to the ones he posted in his first two-plus years in the bigs.
Harper, by contrast, has never finished a year with an OBP below .340, and he has posted an OPS of at least .814 in six of his seven seasons. Over the last four years, he has a .410 OBP, a .952 OPS and an average of 37 home runs per 162 games. Machado’s number during that same stretch: .345, .856, and 37.
Machado’s greatest appeal lie in the fact that he can play shortstop or third, positions where offense is much harder to find than Harper’s spot in the outfield. But when you look at each player’s performance relative to the standard at his position, your perspective might change. In the tables below, you’ll find both player’s aggregate number between 2015 to 2018 compared with the combined totals of every player who logged at least 800 plate appearances at their respective positions. For Harper, the sample is all players (with 800+ PAs) who spent at least 50 percent of the time at the three outfield positions. For Machado, it is players at third, short stop and second base.
While Machado outperformed his peers by 13.2 percent per OPS, Harper was 23.3 percent better. That’s a huge difference, big enough to earn Harper an unquestioned place among the handful of greatest hitters in the game, a domain where guys like Cabrera, Cano and Rodriguez resided when they signed their deals. Machado? He’s been great. But not that much greater than a player like Hanley Ramirez was through a similar age.
Ramirez through age 26: 3,372 PAs, 124 HRs, .905 OPS, .385 OBP.
Machado through age 25: 4,074 PAs, 175 HRs, .822 OPS, .335 OBP.
Since then, Ramirez has posted a .797 OPS while averaging 18 home runs and 462 plate appearances per season.
That sort of risk is present with any player. But when you compare ceilings to floors, Harper is simply on a different level.
The tendency has been to treat those two players as one in the same. Maybe that’s what the market -- and the Phillies -- will ultimately decide. But I’m not sure that it is wise to jump to that conclusion.