The apparent staring contest between Manny Machado, the White Sox and the Phillies doesn’t seem to have an end in sight, and the saga will surely drag on even longer if reports of unidentified suitors prove true. With the identities of said teams (assuming for a moment that they do indeed exist) yet unknown — it’s perhaps worthwhile to at least take a high-level pass throughout the league to see just who could plausibly emerge as a surprise dark-horse in the Machado auction.
It seems safe to eliminate the league’s perennial lowest spenders. While the Rays have an atypical amount of flexibility even after signing Charlie Morton, it’s impossible to imagine a team with this payroll history sustaining even a $25MM annual salary — let alone a salary of $30MM or more. Similarly, the Athletics figure to be priced out of the Machado market, as do the Pirates and the Marlins (the latter of which, once again, is rebuilding anyway). The Reds are already projected to set a new franchise-record payroll in 2019, and adding Machado when they already have strong infield options isn’t all that plausible.
Great as Machado is, there are also some clubs who simply don’t have space in their infield for him. The Astros could afford to add Machado to their ranks, for instance, but Houston wouldn’t displace any of Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa or Jose Altuve to accommodate Machado. The Nationals have Anthony Rendon, Trea Turner and newly signed Brian Dozier comprising their non-first-base infield slots. I wouldn’t characterize the group of Josh Donaldson, Dansby Swanson, Ozzie Albies and Johan Camargo as quite as strong an infield mix, but it’s fair to say that the Braves probably don’t have space for yet another left-side infielder, barring a trade. Machado would also take Atlanta’s payroll to record heights.
Looking further, it’s unlikely that a team in the early stages of a pure rebuild is going to sign Machado the type of contract he’s seeking. The Royals are trying to pare back payroll, and the Tigers have yet to signal that they’re ready to emerge from their own restructuring. The Orioles aren’t going to bring him back into the mix on the heels of selling off the vast majority of their appealing veteran assets last summer. If it turns out that the Mariners wanted to clear money for Machado and/or Bryce Harper all along this winter, well then kudos to Jerry Dipoto on the most entertaining offseason in MLB history. But, since we’re trying to be rational, it seems like a lock that Machado doesn’t align with Seattle’s “re-imagining” movement.
Several mid-market teams are said to be facing payroll constraints that’ll probably keep them out of the Machado market. The Indians have been trying to shed payroll for much of the winter, and the Diamondbacks are currently being weighed down by huge commitments to Zack Greinke and Yasmany Tomas, the latter of whom is no longer even on the roster. The Rockies’ projected payroll already checks in north of $150MM, making a deal tough to envision. And if they’re going to give this type of annual salary to anyone, they’d probably prefer to offer it to Nolan Arenado, anyhow.
There are also several teams who typically spend heavily but are again refraining from doing so. The Dodgers don’t really have a need on the left side of the infield, but they could conceivably move Justin Turner or perhaps even Corey Seager to second base if it meant opening the hot corner for a player of Machado’s caliber, but there have at least been some reports that L.A. is vying to stay below the luxury tax line, and they’ve not spent like a big-market club to date. The Cubs could bid farewell to Addison Russell in some capacity and install Machado at shortstop, but persistent reports out of Chicago suggest their budget isn’t even flexible enough to bolster the relief corps. The Giants seem likelier to rebuild than to add a free agent of this magnitude, and the Rangers have been zeroed in on smaller-scale additions as they embark on their own soft reset. The Blue Jays are no strangers to large payrolls ($160MM+ in each of the past two seasons) but have made only marginal additions as they face the reality of a top-heavy division and the disbanding of the core that recently carried them to the ALCS.
The Red Sox arguably don’t have a dire need for Machado, though they could likely find a way to fit him into the mix. However, they’re just a few million shy of the top luxury bracket, and some reports have implied that an unwillingness to top that threshold is preventing them from even adding a reliever to the ’pen. They’re picking an odd time to draw a line in the sand, but Machado never seemed all that likely a target anyhow. Their chief rival, the Yankees, made (and very arguably still makes) sense on paper, but it doesn’t seem like they’ll outbid the field to further muddle an already crowded infield picture.
Beyond this grouping, of course, we know that both the White Sox and Phillies are legitimate Machado suitors who needn’t be explored as we try to pin down any potential mystery clubs. All of that said, there are still six clubs that strike me as reasonable guesses when trying to pin down potential Machado mystery clubs. Here’s a look at the remaining teams, and how/why they could conceivably add Machado to the mix (listed alphabetically):
- Angels: The Halos have larger priorities — namely, trying to extend Mike Trout — but it wouldn’t be that hard to fit Machado into the mix. Zack Cozart could be slotted in at second base to make room for Machado at third base. Recent comments from GM Billy Eppler have suggested that the Angels’ spending is likely near its max following the addition of Cody Allen, but they only have Trout under control for another two seasons. There’s every reason to try to maximize the chance of winning immediately, and the Albert Pujols albatross will be off the books after the 2021 season. If the Halos somehow find a way to extend Trout, they’d only be on the hook for all three mega-salaries for one season (2021).
- Brewers: Milwaukee is already in record payroll territory, but Ryan Braun is a free agent after the 2020 season and they’ve watched the division-rival Cubs largely sit this offseason out. With a clear infield need, the Brewers could theoretically add Machado, slide Travis Shaw over to second base and boast an exceptionally deep lineup. Milwaukee has just $48MM in guaranteed money on the 2020 payroll and $35.5MM in 2021. There’s likely some bad blood after October’s Jesus Aguilar incident — Christian Yelich made his feelings toward Machado known after that game — but presumably the hatchet could be buried if Machado were suddenly helping the Brewers win an extra five-plus games per year for the foreseeable future.
- Cardinals: President of baseball ops John Mozeliak certainly didn’t sound like someone who was planning on a big free-agent splash over the weekend, but the Cards were prioritizing corner-infield bats earlier this winter prior to acquiring Paul Goldschmidt and could still fit Machado into the fold. Doing so would likely mean sliding either Paul DeJong or Matt Carpenter to second base for a season — the latter of which is probably a particularly unpalatable defensive alignment. But the St. Louis lineup would be exceptionally deep. As mentioned above with regard to the Rockies and Arenado, perhaps the Cardinals would simply prefer to give Goldschmidt a $30MM+ annual salary on an extension if they have the resources available, but Machado is a half decade younger.
- Mets: The Mets’ infield is overcrowded as is — so much so that Jeff McNeil is likely to play in the outfield next season — so they’d have to make a move in order to fit Machado into the mix. But new GM Brodie Van Wagenen has been vocal about his win-now attitude, and shipping Todd Frazier off in order to open regular time for Machado at the hot corner isn’t outlandish. What could be outlandish would be the Wilpon family green-lighting a payroll north of $160MM, but even with all the moves they’ve made, it’s not that hard to see an on-paper scenario where Machado fits into the mix.
- Padres: San Diego’s hopeful core is quite young, which presents them with the potential to carry a few notable veteran long-term contracts. Last offseason’s Eric Hosmer deal already looks regrettable, but the Padres did front-load the deal, so their annual commitment to Hosmer drops to $13MM beginning in 2023. The Padres project at a payroll just south of $84MM right now and have about $64MM on the books next season. The Padres haven’t historically been big spenders in the past, but the current ownership group did authorize a $108MM Opening Day payroll back in 2015. The Padres are known to be looking for a third baseman, and Machado would give them a long-term answer.
- Twins: The Twins are the only team in baseball that doesn’t have a single dollar committed to any player in 2020. With a completely blank payroll slate, they’d have little problem fitting a major salary onto the long-term books. Looking at the 2019 roster, the infield appears full at first glance, but Machado is the type of player for whom a team should be willing to shuffle the deck. Miguel Sano could slide over to first base, pushing C.J. Cron to the bench role that Tyler Austin currently occupies. A $4.8MM bench bat would be an overpay for a team like the Twins, and owner Jim Pohlad would need to approve a record payroll by as much as $10MM for the upcoming season. That, however, would be a one-year expenditure before payroll naturally regressed. Meanwhile, the Indians aren’t improving, the Tigers and Royals aren’t threats to contend, and if any club should have an interest in keeping Machado away from the ChiSox, one would imagine it’d be a division rival.