Regardless of what you have read or heard about the futures of Bryce Aron Max Harper and Manuel Arturo Machado, this is really all we know for certain: To date, neither player has received an offer that comes close to satisfying the record-setting size and scope that he expected when free agency began 88 days ago.
And so, Harper and Machado wait. And wait. And wait.
The Phillies are waiting, too. Even though they slashed payroll for three years to help create the flexibility to sign at least one of the 26-year-old superstars this winter in what was expected to be the most anticipated free-agent class in baseball history, and even though they are closer to contending for a division title once again after improving by 14 victories from 2017 to 2018, the Phillies are biding their time, sitting on the hundreds of millions that owner John Middleton said he’s willing to spend on a marquee player.
It’s a curious strategy for a franchise that hasn’t had a winning season since 2011 or drawn more than 2.5 million fans to Citizens Bank Park since 2013 and therefore is unable to change the local sports conversation three long weeks after the Eagles' season ended from “Carson Wentz or Nick Foles?” It’s also annoying to rumor-weary fans who crave a resolution and probably not great for baseball that free agency has become such a drag.
But for as much as the Phillies need Harper or Machado — and make no mistake, they really need one of them after getting the fewest hits of any team in baseball last season — it’s probably wise at this point to keep waiting, assuming general manager Matt Klentak has read the market correctly.
Consider, for a moment, the case of J.D. Martinez and the Boston Red Sox last year.
Martinez soared into free agency at age 30 after a 45-homer, 1.066-OPS 2017 season that included 29 homers in his final 62 games with the Arizona Diamondbacks. He switched agents in large part because of Scott Boras' track record of negotiating seven-year contracts for free-agent outfielders Matt Holliday, Jayson Werth, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Shin-Soo Choo. By mid-February, though, the best offer Martinez had gotten was a five-year proposal worth $100 million or so from the Red Sox.
Boston hadn't replaced iconic slugger David Ortiz and was starving for middle-of-the-order power. The rival New York Yankees, meanwhile, had just paired Giancarlo Stanton with Aaron Judge. Martinez-to-the-Sox made too much sense not to happen, but when spring training opened, negotiations were at an impasse.
Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski recognized the market for most free agents, including Martinez, was historically lethargic. Most of the usual big-market bidders weren’t buying, while the Diamondbacks couldn’t fit Martinez into the budget unless they unloaded ace Zack Greinke’s contract. Dombrowski didn’t feel pressure to up the ante at a time when Boras wasn’t being inundated with offers, and Boras figured his only chance to expand the market was to give teams more time to ponder how much Martinez could help them.
Finally, on Feb. 18, Martinez blinked. He agreed to a contract that featured some player-friendly terms, including $47.5 million guaranteed in the first two years and opt-out provisions after 2019 or 2020. But the length and overall value of the contract — five years, $110 million — were considerably less than initial projections when the offseason began.
Patience paid off for the Red Sox. And based on their assessment of the free-agent landscape this winter, the Phillies believe they will reap similar rewards for slow-dancing with Harper and Machado.
Machado’s market seems to consist of the Phillies, Chicago White Sox, and San Diego Padres, with agent Dan Lozano likely trying to bring in other teams. Boras labeled Harper a “generational talent," and according to the Washington Post, Harper rejected the Washington Nationals' offer of a 10-year, $300 million extension late last season.
Thus far, though, Harper has been linked mostly to just the Phillies and Nationals, who don’t appear to be budgeting for the return of the eye-blacked face of their franchise after dropping nearly $200 million on other free agents.
Neither player has serious interest from the Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers, or Chicago Cubs. Not yet, at least. Maybe never.
The Phillies, meanwhile, are flush with cash and poised to spend it whenever Boras and Lozano are ready to engage. If Harper and Machado want the biggest payday, the Phillies can provide it. And if the market suddenly expands, they can always kick in some extra cash, guarantee another year or two, or, in Middleton’s words, get “a little bit stupid.”
But why should they drive the bidding if there are so few bidders to begin with? The millions the Phillies save now could be put toward signing ace Aaron Nola to a contract extension later.
And so, the Phillies keep waiting. It might be the hardest part, as the late Tom Petty sang, but with spring training less than two weeks away, it’s also the sensible way to approach Harper and Machado.