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Bryce or Bust? With Manny Machado off the board, Phillies can’t afford to pass on Bryce Harper, too | Analysis

GM Matt Klentak doesn't want to show his hand, but passing on Bryce Harper and waiting to sign a superstar free agent in a future offseason would be a dangerous game for the Phillies.

Phillies general manager Matt Klentak
Phillies general manager Matt KlentakRead moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Matt Klentak would be a lousy negotiator if he reacted to the Manny Machado-to-San Diego news by wearing a “Bryce or Bust” T-shirt while holding a blank check made out to Mssrs. Bryce Harper and Scott Boras and signed by Phillies owner John Middleton.

So, instead, he put on his poker face.

As word leaked Tuesday that Machado agreed to terms on a 10-year, $300 million contract with the Padres — a deal that would represent the biggest free-agent signing in American sports history, at least until Harper signs — Klentak rejected the narrative that the Phillies are now over a barrel in their offseason-long attempt to add a megastar to their already improved roster.

“I’m confident that that will be the perception,” the Phillies general manager said. “We have to remember that there will be other free agents that make sense for this franchise. There will be plenty of opportunities to spend money and to make our team better. We cannot allow ourselves to be put in a position where we have to do something at all costs. There’s a significant cost that we’re willing to pay to add, but we have to be willing to walk away at some point.”

After all, Klentak said, the Phillies walked away from Machado. Despite being linked to the 26-year-old shortstop/third baseman for more than a year, trying hard to acquire him from the Baltimore Orioles during the All-Star break last July, hosting him at Citizens Bank Park and taking him to dinner in Center City on Dec. 20, and recruiting him all winter, they pegged his value at a specific price point and were determined not to exceed it. Klentak declined to divulge the Phillies’ best offer, though he termed it “aggressive.” Not as aggressive as the Padres', apparently.

Who knew that even the “stupid money” that Middleton joked about spending has its limits?

Presumably, then, there is a line the Phillies won’t cross with Harper, either. But this idea that they can put off signing a franchise player until a future offseason? Sorry, not buying it.

A team doesn’t trade its most prized prospect for an All-Star with two more seasons of club control if it isn’t serious about contending immediately. The Phillies made that move two weeks ago, sending 20-year-old pitcher Sixto Sanchez to the Miami Marlins in a three-player package for catcher J.T. Realmuto, a deal that was widely viewed as a precursor to throwing $300-plus million at Harper.

It’s true that sluggers Nolan Arenado, Anthony Rendon, and Paul Goldschmidt might headline next year’s free-agent class, and there’s plenty to like about all of them. Mookie Betts and South Jersey’s own Mike Trout — the two best all-around players in baseball — could hit the market in 2020-21. Three years from now, Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, and Kris Bryant are in line for free agency.

But waiting for them is a dangerous game. Any or all could get injured. Or they could sign a contract extension and not reach the open market. If they do, Trout and Betts, in particular, will want to top the value of Harper’s contract.

And none of those players will be as young as Harper is now. At 26, Harper likely hasn’t even reached his peak, which makes a 10-year contract far easier for a team to bear than, say, when the Los Angeles Angels gave 31-year-old Albert Pujols a decadelong deal in 2011.

Klentak, who worked for the Angels back then, surely knows that. He can’t force Harper to take the Phillies’ money, but he certainly can make an offer that the rightfielder can’t refuse.

It just doesn’t do any good for Klentak to acknowledge as much, especially with Machado off the board. Besides, it’s unclear how many teams are actually in the mix for Harper. The Yankees have never been linked to him; the Dodgers likely bowed out after signing outfielder A.J. Pollock; the Nationals made a 10-year, $300 million offer to keep Harper at the end of last season and have since devoted their resources to other areas, including a six-year, $140 million contract for pitcher Patrick Corbin.

The Phillies don’t want to bid against themselves. They know now, though, that signing Harper will mean clearing the 10-year, $300 million bar set by Machado. And Boras likely wants to break not only Machado’s mark for overall value in free agency but also Diamondbacks pitcher Zack Greinke’s record for average annual value ($34.3 million) and Yankees slugger Giancarlo Stanton’s pre-free-agency record for the largest contract ever ($325 million).

Would 10 years and $345 million get it done? Or would the Phillies walk away from that, too?

“I won’t comment on that,” Klentak said. “I’ll say this, every player is different.”

No player is perfect, either. But Harper is available right now at the right time, which has to put the Phillies in “Bryce or Bust” mode, even if they don’t want to admit it.