This week, Major League Baseball will be in full swing with the start of exhibition games in Florida and Arizona, the clearest sign the 2019 season is not far ahead.
Still, it’s the check swing that’s best described the progress in signing the major free agents from this class, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. Negotiations have been on-going and speculation rampant, but nothing aside from rumors have shown themselves.
However, it appears the end might be near for both players, particularly with Harper, whose bromance with the aggressive Philadelphia Phillies appears to be fogging the windshield.
“I keep hearing there’s a lot of momentum and traction with him going and signing with the Philadelphia Phillies. He could be rounding third and heading to home shortly,” MLB.com’s Jim Bowden said.
There were multiple reports over the weekend talks between Harper’s agent, Scott Boras, and the Phillies were advancing, although nothing seems to close to happening. It should be noted the Chicago White Sox, San Francisco Giants and San Diego Padres seem to still be interested, as well, and the Padres might actually have enough money to sign both Harper and Machado, if they were inclined to head in that direction. The Padres have reportedly already offered Machado $250 million.
Like the White Sox and Padres, the Phillies have been after both players, the interest fulfilling ownership’s pledge to spend crazy money to improve the team.
Even without both players, Philadelphia has already acquired outfielder Andrew McCutcheon, shortstop Juan Segura, reliever David Robertson and catcher J.T. Realmuto, major upgrades across the board. They also extended the contract of young ace Aaron Nola four years for $45 million. They play their first Spring Training game on Friday.
The consensus is the Phillies will get Harper or Machado and they are willing to extend themselves, in terms of length and value of contract, in a way no other organization may be ready to.
Putting that into context for Harper: He has already turned down 10 years and $300 million from the Washington Nationals. So you might conclude the offer he takes will at least be comparable to $30 million annually, even if the years fall short.
Harper, 26, has hit .279/.388/.512 (139 OPS+) with 184 home runs and 75 stolen bases in his career, although his .249 average was disappointing. But his enormous walk total resulted in him reaching base 39 percent of the time.
Interestingly, the Phillies may actually want Machado more because he can play third and short and can give their infield a major power boost, something they haven’t had since Hall of Fame third baseman Mike Schmidt was around.
Harper is superior defender and considered something of a matinee idol, which might drive attendance more noticeably than Machado. The more tickets the Phillies sell, the more income they generate, the easier it is to justify what would be an enormous hike in payroll.
One of the reasons the Harper-Phillies momentum has built is social media. It’s been buzzing the last few days in that direction. MLB.com reported the Phillies informed their sales department they would be working Monday, despite team offices being closed for President’s Day. Those rumors proved to be without merit. So nobody had to cancel a skiing trip just to prepare for Harper’s arrival.
“I’m really pleased with the fact that I believe that we’ve put our best foot forward with these guys so far. I’m really pleased with the rest of our offseason,” Phillies general manager Matt Klentak said. “That’s why I really want to try to temper the notion that a failure to sign one of these big free agents renders this a bad offseason. We’ve had an objectively excellent offseason, in my opinion. That doesn’t mean we’re going to stop trying. We’re going to keep pushing.”
Along with improving the team, getting Harper and/or Machado would have another big impact – motivating their young stars, Maikel Franco and Odubel Herrera, to play with more consistency. Both had comparatively miserable seasons in 2018, but both remain major assets on what’s been a young and building team.
Rookie manager Gabe Kapler made a lot of lineup switches last season – five different shortstops, nine right fielders and seven third baseman – and has said he’s looking for more continuity, something Harper and Machado would immediately add.
“One of the things that came up in our discussions a lot was, why all the mixing and matching? Right?” Kapler said. “And we said, fairly straightforwardly, that it was because we didn’t have the guys you could just plug in and go out there every day. It wasn’t turnkey. And now you have Segura and Realmuto and McCutchen and others who, in theory, go out there and play 150 games. And maybe more.”
According to The Athletic, Phillies pinch-hitters made 295 plate appearances. Only the Dodgers (354) and Giants (298) had more. Players who did not start a game for the Phillies had 494 plate appearances in 2018. That ranked third behind the Dodgers (598) and Brewers (527).