Will Bryce Harper and Manny Machado Do $800M NBA-Style Free-Agency Team-Up?
BALTIMORE, MD - JULY 10:  Bryce Harper #34 of the Washington Nationals and Manny Machado #13 of the Baltimore Orioles talk during their game at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on July 10, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Rob Carr/Getty Images

The idea of a team signing both Bryce Harper and Manny Machado as free agents in the upcoming Major League Baseball offseason might sound absurd.

Each is a young super-duper-star who could command as much as $400 million on the open market. Signing both could therefore require as much as an $800 million investment.

And yet, Harper and Machado pulling a LeBron-James-and-Chris-Bosh-to-the-Miami-Heat could happen. 

Particularly if the Philadelphia Phillies come calling.

On Sept. 13, Jon Heyman of Fancred reported that several rival executives “suggested they believe” that the Phillies will attempt to sign Harper and Machado, rather than one or the other.

If true, he may be talking to the same people who were speaking to ESPN.com’s Jerry Crasnick in July:

The Washington Nationals are sure to make a spirited run at keeping their coveted right fielder (and 2010 No. 1 pick) in town. Ditto for the Los Angeles Dodgers and their coveted shortstop/third baseman, and their successful effort to get under the luxury-tax threshold can only help their cause. Meanwhile, the New York Yankees are another moneybags team that’s ducked the luxury tax.

Nonetheless, the Phillies are a singularly realistic threat to land both Harper and Machado in the biggest hot-stove splash in MLB history.

Chris Szagola/Associated Press

While the Dodgers and Yankees are just now avoiding the luxury tax, the Phillies have been avoiding it for several years as they’ve sought to rebuild following the collapse of the Chase Utley-, Jimmy Rollins- and Ryan Howard-led era.

Even after taking their first steps out of their rebuild with a $135 million investment in Jake Arrieta and Carlos Santana last winter, the Phillies only opened 2018 with a $95.3 million payroll. As of now, they barely have more money ($68.9 million) committed to 2019 than the Cincinnati Reds ($68.6 million).

These figures amount to loose change for a franchise that peaked with $183.5 million in payroll expenses in 2014. And that was two years before their $2.5 billion TV contract kicked in.

Beyond the money needed to sign Harper, 25, and Machado, 26, the Phillies have something else that’s kinda-sorta-very important: a strong need for them on the field.

The team’s return to contention in 2018 has hit a wall in part because its offense has run out of gas. Amid Philadelphia’s 15-29 stretch since August 6, it’s mustered only a .691 OPS and 3.9 runs per game.

The beginnings of a strong offense are there—namely, Santana, Rhys Hoskins, Maikel Franco and Odubel Herrera. What the Phillies lack are big boppers to tie it all together.

That’s where Harper and Machado would come in. The latter is working on a career-best .908 OPS with 37 home runs. Even in a down year, Harper has an .885 OPS and 34 homers. His pinnacle, of course, was his 2015 National League MVP season in which he had one of the greatest offensive years ever.

Adding both Harper and Machado would be a hell of a way for the Phillies to close the gap between themselves and the Atlanta Braves in the NL East. And the chance to chase rings could be just as important in luring Harper and Machado as the money.

To boot, each might like the idea of hitting at Citizens Bank Park.

No other National League stadium is more friendly to home run hitters than the Phillies’ home turf. That should be of interest to Harper and Machado. To wit, consider how the non-homer fly balls and line drives they’ve hit at home would have fared in Philadelphia:

Image courtesy of BaseballSavant.MLB.com

Image courtesy of BaseballSavant.MLB.com

Extra power is a nice enough thing in its own right. But in this case, it could prove to be an avenue to even greater riches for both players.

Although both are sure to sign long-term contracts (say, 10 years or so) this winter, they’re young enough to command early opt-outs through which they could re-enter the open market while still in their primes. A few 40-homer seasons in Philadelphia would only enhance the viability of such opt-outs.

The Dodgers can’t offer Harper and Machado a similarly hitter-friendly ballpark to hit in. The Yankees can, although theirs skews more friendly to Harper because of its short right field porch. Besides, the Yankees might take the presence of Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and Miguel Andujar as a cue to spend on free agents they actually need.

If all these factors result in Harper and Machado doing an NBA-style team-up and transforming the Phillies into legitimate World Series contenders, one question must ultimately be asked:

Is this, you know, good for baseball?

WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 23: Bryce Harper #34 of the Washington Nationals stands on deck in the third inning against the Philadelphia Phillies at Nationals Park on August 23, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

Whether superteams are good for the National Basketball Association is a subject of much debate. Sure, the hype they generate is a positive. But is the parity they kill an equal or greater negative?

There might be a similar debate in the baseball world if the Phillies drop hundreds of millions of dollars to sign the two best players on the free-agent market. However, it’ll be harder to come down on the negative than it is in the NBA superteam debate. 

Baseball and basketball are different beasts. In basketball, one or two superstars can make a world of difference. In baseball, less so. There are 25 men on a team, and even the best can only do so much to create wins. Shohei Ohtani aside, great hitters can’t pitch, and great pitchers can’t hit.

It’s also clear by now that there isn’t a 1-1 correlation between money spent and success achieved. Despite spending billions, the Yankees have won a single World Series since 2001. The Dodgers have spent over $1 billion just since 2013, and it’s earned them only one trip to the World Series. 

Such is life in an era in which MLB contenders are built more on the backs of cheap homegrown stars than on pricey free agents. It’s an effective and efficient model, albeit one with an ominous dark side: players aren’t getting as big a slice of the pie as they used to.

Therein lies a potential benefit of the Phillies signing Harper and Machado. If they give both players record-setting deals, perhaps the MLB Players Association won’t be angling for war with the league in the next round of collective bargaining talks. Or, at least, not a war big and nasty enough to force a work stoppage.

This is not to suggest that everybody should start rooting for Harper and Machado to go to Philadelphia. It’s merely something to watch out for and to not be afraid of.

                                     

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and Baseball Savant.

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