As Tyler Kepner of the New York Times writes, in a general encapsulation of the state of play in the current free agent market, there’s still not much clarity regarding superstars Manny Machado and Bryce Harper. Perhaps, as Kepner suggests, with the two belles of the ball still waiting to find a dance partner, the rest of the participants are still milling about, afraid to commit.
Of course, the market is also operating in the shadow of last winter’s dud of a dance, so the factors influencing the secondary tiers of free agency could reflect broader changes mostly unrelated to Machado and Harper. Whether the matchmaking process will be as slow as it was last year remains to be seen; the more interesting question, though, is simply whether there’ll be more money out there for the good-but-not-great players available. As for Machado and Harper, there’s every reason to believe they’ll be paid handsomely.
It’s interesting, though perhaps not surprising, that the conversation thus far has mostly focused on Harper. As Kepner notes, Harper’s gunslinging agent Scott Boras is selling Harper to suitors as an “iconic” and uniquely marketable player. The ever-visible Boras is, of course, also making that same pitch in very public fashion to and through the media. Machado’s agent, Dan Lozano, has negotiated some monster deals of his own, so he’s no amateur. Clearly, though, he is not pursuing the sort of media strategy that Boras is.
The differences in the agents’ approaches are perhaps in some part reflections of genuine personality differences in their respective clients. While he hardly carries any kind of reputation for off-field antics, Harper seems to be enjoying his time in the spotlight, playfully dropping hints on social media and an assuredly unscripted TMZ spot. (Did you know: Harper’s dog is still named Wrigley and he quite likes deep dish!)
Machado, meanwhile, has been more or less off the radar entirely — leaving many to hem and haw over the generally distasteful impression he left during the World Series. In an interview published this morning by MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand, Machado has perhaps launched his effort at shifting the narrative somewhat. The 26-year-old casts himself as a humble, hard-working player who shows up every day and cares about winning — which, generally, was his reputation both in and out of baseball circles prior to the recent shift.
Of course, the change in public perception — one that was likely not fully embraced by those that have known him in person for years — was a self-inflicted wound caused by Machado’s cringeworthy comments on hustling as well as some highly questionable on-field actions. Machado says he accepts the blame for how his words came across, but explains: “I was trying to talk about how I’m not the guy who is eye wash. There’s a difference between fake hustle for show and being someone who tries hard to win. I’ve always been the guy who does whatever he can to win for his team.”
Machado unsurprisingly declines to divulge any details about his thinking on an ultimate destination. Generally, he suggests to Feinsand that he’s open to any and all suitors. And he says he won’t do anything to make the process a more-publicized one than it already promises to be. “When the time comes,” Machado says, “there will probably be a few of the teams that I will sit down with in person, but it’s not something I plan on being very public about.” There’s plenty more to digest from his chat with Feinsand, which is a must-read piece, though Machado surely will still have plenty to answer to when he sits down with team owners who are considering committing hundreds of millions of dollars to employ him.
Generally, the final dollar tallies these two excellent young players will command will be the result of an auction process, the course of which will be determined by the quantity and intensity of team owners waving bidding paddles from the gallery. We don’t yet have a firm sense of the field of Machado bidders, but the rough contours of Harper’s market are beginning to emerge. Notably, it seems he may have two more interesting potential suitors.
It won’t surprise anyone to hear the Cardinals and Braves mentioned as possibilities, as they’ve both long been discussed as teams to keep an eye on. But it’s still notable to see some increasing evidence of real involvement. The owner of the St. Louis franchise, Bill DeWitt III, tells Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Twitter link) that a move for a top-tier free agent is on the table — though he doesn’t necessarily do so in terms that suggest it’s the likeliest outcome. “We could do it, sure,” says DeWitt. “It’s about (considering) putting all our eggs in one basket. We have the payroll room.”
As for the Atlanta organization, which is owned by a corporate entity (Liberty Media) that is theoretically less likely to be swayed by emotion, it remains a bit difficult to gauge the true level of interest. But David O’Brien of The Athletic tweets that he’s getting signs the Braves will be “players in the Bryce Harper sweepstakes.” Whether or not the club will turn into a front-runner, let alone land Harper, is obviously still unclear. But it seems fair to presume that the involvement of multiple, serious suitors increases the likelihood that Boras (or, for Machado, Lozano) will be able to convince one team to enter a new contract stratosphere of the kind MLBTR predicted in its ranking of the top fifty free agents.