TAMPA, Fla. — Matt Klentak stood in the back of the press box at Coors Field last September as the worst Phillies finish in 76 seasons unfurled before him. It was a painful way to end. The Phillies bombed out of first place and dropped 20 of their final 28 games.
That sting would surely be quelled by the superstar free agents the team was ready to pursue. But that night in Denver, as the team began one of its eight straight losses, the general manager seemed to present the belief that the Phillies did not envision this offseason hinging on their ability to sign Bryce Harper or Manny Machado.
Next season, Klentak said that night, presents “a really good class in free agency.” And the following season “is also a really good free-agent class,” he said appearing to hint at a certain superstar from South Jersey. The Phillies, it seemed then, would be content if they missed out on Machado and Harper because of the players scheduled to be available in offseasons to come.
It was easy to dream about landing players such as Nolan Arenado, Mookie Betts, and Mike Trout. But those dreams were met with some reality Tuesday when Arenado, a third baseman and the grand prize of next year’s class, agreed to an eight-year extension with Colorado. The Phillies were reminded that it is dangerous to even think about pursuing free agents before they actually become free agents.
Harper and Machado became free agents last October. Arenado will not be a free agent for at least three more years. Mike Trout is scheduled to become a free agent after the 2020 season, but maybe he could follow Arenado’s lead and sign an extension to stay with the only team he’s known.
The Phillies zeroed in on Harper last week after they were outbid for Machado. If there is any doubt about their commitment, check the travel log of owner John Middleton’s private jet as he flew over the weekend to meet Harper in Las Vegas.
But the team’s chances of getting Harper became clouded Monday when the Dodgers emerged from their own meeting with the outfielder. Perhaps the Dodgers’ interest could make Harper’s price exceed the Phillies’ valuation, forcing the Phillies to walk away from Harper as they did with Machado.
But if they walk away, they know they cannot walk away with confidence that a superstar will be waiting for them next offseason. Arenado’s deal reminded the Phillies that their focus has to remain on Harper, the superstar who is actually a free agent, instead of dreaming about the superstars who might become free agents.
If Arenado’s contract offered the Phillies more reason to be aggressive, it also offered Harper something to bring to the negotiating table.
Harper was already using Machado’s contract — $300 million over 10 years with an opt-out after five years — as a bar to cross. But now he can take Arenado’s deal — $260 million over eight years with an opt-out after three years — to help his case.
Arenado’s contract is shorter than Machado’s by two years, but it presents a higher average annual value and includes an earlier opt-out. Harper will want not only to match Machado’s length, but also to beat Arenado’s value while receiving a similar opt-out.
An opt-out after the third year would allow Harper to re-enter free agency the season after Trout is scheduled to become a free agent. Then, if Trout signs a record deal after 2020, Harper would get the chance to top it. The Phillies, willing to commit a long-term deal to Harper worth more than $300 million, are cautious about extending a three-year opt-out.