LAS VEGAS -- Scott Boras stood outside a Southern California resort last month like a ringmaster getting set to start the show. It was a show that had been anticipated for months, if not years. And Boras’ client was one of its stars.
“Well, certainly Harper’s bazaar has begun,” Boras said. “It’s fashionable, it’s historical, it’s elite, global certainly. And certainly it has inspirations that deal with great shoes and great hair, inspirations on the part of Bryce.”
Boras, the superagent of superagents, has proved to be as good at hyperbole as he is at yielding his clients big paydays. But since then, Harper’s bazaar has been quiet. Bryce Harper and Manny Machado -- the two stars of perhaps the most-anticipated offseason in baseball history -- have made little noise outside of Harper picking college football winners last month on an ESPN pregame show. The race for Harper and Machado -- a pair of in their prime superstars looking to net historic contracts -- has yet to truly begin. That will change this week in Las Vegas.
The first five weeks of the offseason moved slowly for the superstars, as neither of their agents was in a rush for his client to sign a contract, instead choosing to let the market build and hope the riches grow. The Winter Meetings, which begin Monday at the Mandalay Bay and run through Thursday, will belong to Harper and Machado. And the Phillies will be in the thick of it.
It is hard to determine which superstar the Phillies prefer, but they would certainly be more than content if the winter ended with either Harper or Machado on their roster. Both will receive contracts worth more than $300 million, and it is easy to argue a preference for either one.
Harper hit 34 homers last season, has a .952 OPS over the last four seasons, mashes more homers at Citizens Bank Park than any other visiting stadium, and possesses the star power to move the needle more than Machado. But Machado is not shabby. He hit 37 homers last season, plays a premium infield position and grabbed the city’s attention last summer when the Phillies nearly landed him in a trade-deadline deal with Baltimore, before he was dealt to the Dodgers. Philadelphia is plenty familiar with both players.
The market seems to be lining up for the Phillies, who are waiting to dip into the $5 billion TV contract they signed four years ago with Comcast. The Nationals appeared to tap out of Harper’s bazaar over the weekend when owner Mark Lerner told D.C. radio station The Fan that “I really don’t expect him to come back.” The Cubs may have already reached their payroll limit and should not be able to outbid the Phillies. The Giants seem to be readying for a rebuild with a new president of baseball operations. The Cardinals already acquired Paul Goldschmidt from the Diamondbacks, and the Mets picked up $120 million when they traded for Robinson Cano.
The stiffest competition will come from teams that play in the two biggest markets: the Yankees and Dodgers. Harper dreamed as a kid of playing for the Yankees, who could also look for Machado to play shortstop, as Didi Gregorius recovers from Tommy John surgery. The Dodgers, according to a report last week by Yahoo Sports, are utilizing Magic Johnson -- the same person who helped convince LeBron James to play in LA and not Philadelphia -- to sell Harper on Hollywood.
The Phillies might have the money, but the players have to take it. Phillies managing partner John Middleton said last month that the Phillies might even get “stupid” with their spending this offseason. Middleton wants his superstar. It will be up to general manager Matt Klentak to make it happen.
“I think it’s really important that, from top to bottom as an organization, we’re aligned on the direction of the franchise,” Klentak said. “And I can tell you without a doubt, we are.”
When the Winter Meetings end Thursday morning, it is more than likely that Harper and Machado will still be free agents. But the groundwork for a deal will be formulated inside the Mandalay Bay. Four days in Vegas should provide a clearer picture of where the Phillies stand.
That will not be their sole objective as the team’s pursuit of a starting pitcher -- preferably a left-hander -- kicked into high gear last week after Washington outbid the Phillies last week for Patrick Corbin. J.A. Happ and Dallas Keuchel are the top left-handed free agents. The Yankees are after Happ and the Phillies may not be willing to give Keuchel a long-term deal if they didn’t want to sign Corbin for six years. The free-agent starting pitcher market spiked after Corbin reaped $140 million over six years and Boston gave Nathan Eovaldi nearly $70 million over four years. The Phillies' best route to a left-hander could come via a trade.
The Diamondbacks, after trading Goldschmidt last week, are open for business. Robbie Ray would fill the Phillies' needs. The Giants are listening to offers on Madison Bumgarner, but the once-elite pitcher has lost velocity and movement over the last two seasons. He is under contract for just one season, so it would be a short commitment. But there are enough warning signs to keep the Phillies away from giving up too much in a trade.
The Phillies will also solidify the back end of their bullpen. They added three relievers in the week leading up the Winter Meetings with right-hander Juan Nicasio and left-handers Jose Alvarez and James Pazos. Expect them to add one more, with the primary target being Cleveland’s power left-hander Andrew Miller. Miller, a 33-year-old free agent, has experience both as a traditional closer and as a high-leverage reliever who can pitch in various situations the way the Phillies last season used Seranthony Dominguez. He would be the perfect arm for manager Gabe Kapler’s bullpen stratgey.