Until they inevitably sign contracts that will be worth four times as much as the world's GDP, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado will continue to suck all the oxygen out of the baseball universe.
At least the Phillies can breathe off the fumes.
By virtue of being a prime suitor for either of the free-agent megastars, the Phillies will remain a central character in the ongoing Harper and Machado dramas. There will be meetings and negotiations, offers and counters, twists, turns, and probably a mystery team or two.
And it might take a while before everything is resolved.
That's what makes this offseason so tricky for the Phillies — and general manager Matt Klentak, in particular. For as much as the team's plans revolve around landing a generational player, that is hardly the only item on the to-do list.
If they are going to turn 80 wins into 90 and a four-month mirage atop the NL East into a season-long playoff push, the Phillies likely will need to add a second middle-of-the-order hitter, a starting pitcher, and a late-inning reliever, all through free-agent signings and trades. And if they wait around for Harper and Machado to make up their minds, they might miss out on those other pursuits.
"We're not going to forgo opportunities early in the offseason because we're waiting on something else," Klentak said this past week during the general managers' meetings in Carlsbad, Calif. "If there are good opportunities for us to improve our club now or in the coming weeks or months that make sense for us, we will do it."
From both a baseball and a marketing perspective, the Phillies' perfect-world scenario would involve courting Harper and Machado for the next few weeks, negotiating through the winter meetings next month in Las Vegas (Harper's hometown, incidentally), and bringing the new face of the franchise to town for a pre-Christmas Citizens Bank Park introduction and season-ticket sales bonanza.
Reality is more complicated. Before any agreements are reached, there's likely to be a stare-down between the superstars — or more accurately, their agents. Scott Boras and Dan Lozano represent Harper and Machado, respectively, and each is out to broker the longest and most lucrative contract possible. Neither will want to be the first to reach an agreement. Rather, each will want the other to set the market.
Boras, in particular, is known for slow-playing the free-agent market in an attempt to extract every last cent for his highest-profile clients. The longer he waits, the more likely it is that other teams join the bidding. Just because the New York Yankees, for instance, don't seem inclined to join the Harper sweepstakes today doesn't mean they will feel the same in January.
Many of Boras' biggest contracts — Max Scherzer (seven years, $210 million), Prince Fielder (nine years, $214 million), Eric Hosmer (eight years, $144 million), Matt Holliday (seven years, $120 million), Carlos Beltran (seven years, $119 million) — weren't finalized until January or even February. It's a fact of life for teams dealing with Boras.
Last year, the rest of the market moved at an equally glacial pace. It was historically slow to develop, with a large segment of the free-agent population still unemployed when spring training began. After that experience, many team executives anticipate that players, particularly the second tier of free agents, will want to sign more quickly this year.
"I've been around long enough to know that these things develop for their own reasons, and it's different every single year," Klentak said. "The more we try to project what's going to happen, the more frustrated we get because we're always wrong. I think we just need to be open-minded to every opportunity, whether it's a major move or a minor move, and if it makes sense, we're going to do it. We're not going to wait around."
But what if the Phillies get a strong offer to trade, say, center fielder Odubel Herrera before they know whether they will be able to add Harper to their outfield? Or what if they pass on trading third baseman Maikel Franco because they're waiting to see if Machado chooses to come to Philadelphia?
That's where Klentak must shrewdly read the market and determine when to act and when to wait.
It's a whole new world for the Phillies' 38-year-old GM. In his three previous offseasons on the job, the team was in the midst of a full-scale rebuilding and interested only in short-term deals for stop-gap players. Klentak was able to rule out most top-of-the-market free agents before the offseason began.
Even last year, when the Phillies dived more deeply into free agency by spending $60 million on Carlos Santana and $75 million on Jake Arrieta, they weren't suitors for Hosmer or J.D. Martinez, the marquee names who were in line for the lengthiest contracts.
But the Phillies are as ready to win now as they have been in any season since 2012. They improved their record by 14 wins over 2017, and thanks to fiscal conservatism during their rebuilding years and a $2.5 billion local television deal, they have the financial flexibility to compete for every player, both in free agency and trades. And owner John Middleton is believed ready to make it rain.
Suddenly, Klentak has the attention of every agent, fellow general manager, and member of the national media.
"We're not having any trouble getting meetings," he said, chuckling.
Indeed, if they gave out a Mr. Popularity award at the GM meetings, it would go to Klentak. And it's only going to intensify within the next few months, especially as Harper and Machado get closer to their decisions.
"I don't really look at it as pressure," Klentak said. "It's an opportunity to be able to pursue any player. When we were going through the first few years of the rebuild, there were a lot of things we were never in the position to consider because it didn't make any sense. Even if a player wanted to come to us, it may not have made sense for where we were. In some ways, that simplified the offseason. It didn't make it more fun, but it simplified it. Now we get to explore a lot more."