Rick Hahn is the architect of a team that has averaged 92 losses over six years, including 100 last season. Yet there he was, standing in a ballroom at the general managers' meetings earlier this month, declaring that the Chicago White Sox should be taken seriously as bidders for the two players about whom everyone is buzzing.
"While we are not yet in position realistically to be adding so-called finishing pieces, we are in a position where we need to be opportunistic with regard to the free-agent market," Hahn said. "You can't always control when certain players become available."
This is true. Circumstances change quickly in baseball. Injuries, under-performance, and general market conditions (trades, contract extensions, etc.) can cause a future free-agent class that appears loaded right now to never fully ripen. So, when twin 26-year-old generational talents actually reach the market, it isn't any ordinary offseason.
Bryce Harper and Manny Machado aren't so much cherries on top of a championship roster as they are building blocks, albeit enormous ones, toward that end. The White Sox probably won't make the playoffs next season, but their chances of winning in 2020 and beyond improve if they add Harper or Machado now rather than taking a pass and hoping another franchise player hits the market in a year or two.
This brings us to the Phillies, who are further along in their rebuilding project than the White Sox but still more than one superstar away from being championship-caliber. Harper or Machado would energize an offense that produced the fewest hits in the majors last season, along with a fan base that never quite fell for the team even during its 39-day run in first place.
The Phillies have targeted the winter of Harper and Machado for years. By now, given their well-documented payroll flexibility and owner John Middleton's stated desire to "maybe even be a little stupid about" how many millions of dollars he spends in the offseason, it's almost unthinkable that the Phillies could whiff on both megastars.
And if they do? Well, bring on the torches and pitchforks.
In the apocalyptic world in which neither Harper nor Machado is in the Phillies lineup on opening day, the fans' disappointment would be matched only by their discord. It might even spark a crisis of confidence over whether Philadelphia is truly a desirable destination for baseball's biggest stars.
But for as focused as they are on Harper and Machado, Phillies officials are taking the long view, too. And there will be other opportunities, perhaps as soon as the trade deadline next July, to acquire franchise-altering talents, even if none will be as young as Harper or Machado.
"It's essential to me that you always allow yourself enough payroll to deal with things from year to year as the facts on the ground change," team president Andy MacPhail said last month. "And as attractive as this free-agent class is, take a look at next year's class, the class coming up after this one. Really impressive. And this isn't the last year that major-league baseball is ever going to be played. So you're not going to throw every resource you have at this year because there's the following year as well."
Consider that, in part, to be MacPhail's way of tamping down expectations in the Harper-Machado derby. More than that, though, it's a reminder that the strategy for one offseason isn't formed in a vacuum but rather with the next 12-24 months in mind. The Sixers, for instance, struck out spectacularly last summer in their pursuits of LeBron James, Paul George, and Kawhi Leonard, but they still managed to obtain their elusive third superstar two weeks ago with an in-season trade for Jimmy Butler.
The Phillies made an aggressive push to trade for Machado before the All-Star break, even offering up touted pitching prospect Adonis Medina if Machado would have agreed to a contract extension. Next year, with free agency beckoning at season's end, Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado or Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt may be available at the trade deadline if they're unable to work out contract extensions or their teams fall out of contention.
Ditto for Reds second baseman Scooter Gennett, Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon, Tigers outfielder Nicholas Castellanos, White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu, Cardinals outfielder Marcell Ozuna, and Giants ace Madison Bumgarner. Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts and ace Chris Sale are eligible for free agency next winter, and J.D. Martinez can opt out of his contract and return to the open market.
And if the Angels happen to be headed for their fifth consecutive season out of the playoffs, they likely will find extension talks with Mike Trout to be a non-starter. In that case, they might have to get serious about listening to trade offers as the clock ticks toward his free agency after the 2020 season, so the Phillies will want to keep Angels general manager Billy Eppler on speed dial.
All of this is to say that the Phillies' path to another World Series doesn't end with a successful pursuit of Harper or Machado. It might not be entirely dependent on it, either.