The “story” of the MLB off-season so far has really been a non-story. Just like last year, the free agent market has been a bit slow and the two players everyone seems obsessed with talking about – Manny Machado and Bryce Harper – remain unsigned. What’s more, there doesn’t seem to be nearly as much interest in them as one might have anticipated. The market for Harper is, if rumors are correct, limited to the Phillies, the White Sox, the on-again, off-again Nationals (the only team he’s played for thus far) and possibly the Dodgers. The market for Machado is slimmer still – the White Sox, the Phils and if we believe his agent “a mystery team.”
This shouldn’t be as big a surprise as most people think it is. First off, both are quality, star players that could add to any lineup. However, neither is really a highest-level superstar; both also have knocks against them (albeit small ones.) Machado didn’t make any new fans when he offhandedly complained he’d never be a “Johnny Hustle” kind of guy. Perhaps that was a bit of miscommunication due to English being a second language for him, but you can bet it made owners look a bit more carefully at hours of video of every at bat he took last year to see just how much he does hustle. As for Harper, he does seem to slowly be maturing, but he didn’t make many fans with the media with his arrogance and at times flippantly worded answers early in his career. Others note that his Natonals have been the most talented team in their division for almost his whole career but for that they’ve missed the playoffs entirely three times and never advanced beyond the NLDS level. It would be unfair to blame Bryce alone for their lack of performance, but it can’t be ignored that he hasn’t yet rallied a team around him to great heights.
That said, the reasons they are attracting so little attention is obvious. Many teams can’t afford the kind of money they are looking to get and many others which could, prefer not to pay out that much over a long term. And who can blame them? Before Manny and Bryce complain and hint at “collusion”, perhaps they should go and yell at some of their counterparts. Troy Tulowitzki, Miguel Cabrera, Felix Hernandez, Albert Pujols for starters. All were in similar positions of being elite free agents and signed huge, longterm contracts (albeit all of them except Pujols with their previous team). Few of those contracts have paid off well, at least on the long-term.
Take for example, Tulowitzki. He, like Machado and Harper, was a youngish 26 when he re-upped with the Rockies prior to 2011 on a 10 year deal worth $158M. Note that after 2010, the MLB average salary was pegged around $3M even (currently it’s a shade over $4M, give or take. Exact figures vary due to different critieria about which players are counted as rostered, how to factor in bonuses etc.) Tulo was at the time one of the most promising players in the game, an All Star shortstop with a great glove and bat. the two years before his big contract (2009, 2010) he had numbers like this: .297/32HR/92RBI and .315/27/95. His OPS was 31 and 38% above league average those years and his WAR was 6.5 and 6.7. Signing him for years seemed the only thing for Colorado to do.
It didn’t sour right away. His 2011 campaign lived upto all expectations and got him another All Star spot. He hit .302/30/105 that year with an OPS again 31% better than league average and a WAR over 6. However, the injury bug kicked in in 2012, limiting him to 47 games, 8 homers, and a WAR of a mere 0.4 games better than a replacement. His numbers rebounded in ’13-14, but by 2015 (when he was traded much to his consternation, to Toronto) he’d dropped off to .280/17/70 with a .761 OPS that beat the league norm by only 7%. His WAR- 1.5. After a decentish ’16 with the Jays, he got injured again in 2017, playing just 66 games witha lacklustre .249 average, 7 homers, much reduced infield range and a WAR of a microscopic 0.1. In 2018, he collected about $18M to sit out the entire year due to surgery on his feet. As we know here, he’ll be paid about $18M again this year, mostly by Toronto, to play for the Yankees where he’s seen largely as a stopgap bench player. He’ll get over $20M next year too, no matter if he plays or not.
Or look at King Felix, the onetime heir apparent to Randy Johnson as the Mariners best-ever pitcher. Felix Hernandez had won a Cy Young when he re-signed with Seattle at age 27, for 7 years for a then unheard of $175M. He was coming off a 2010 Cy followed by two seasons in which he went 14-14/3.47 over 234 innings then 13-9/3.06 over 232 innings. His WARs those years were 3.6 and 5.3. What team couldn’t benefit greatly from a stud starter who can toss 230+ innings and add about 5 wins to the team’s total? The Mariners could and did, and for the first few years three at least, it worked out not too badly for them. 2013-15 yielded the following numbers: 12-10/3.04, 204 innings; 15-6/league best 2.14 ERA (70% better than norm), 236 innings; 18-9/3.53 over 202 innings. WARS of 5.3,6.4,4.5. that’s when the pendulum swung back against Seattle. Since then, three years of 11-8, 6-5 and 8-14 with ERAS of 3.82,4.36and 5.55. Under 160 innings each year. WARS of 1.4,0.8 and -1.2. Meaning statistically, the Mariners lost one more game by having Felix around last year for his $26.9M than if they’d used any random minor leaguer in his place. They don’t expect a lot of upside for the $27.9M they owe him this year… consider that while they jettisoned their high-paid talented players like James Paxton and Edwin Diaz this winter, they seemed to have no calls at all inquiring about the “King.”
Or perhaps the granddaddy of the bad big contracts, Albert Pujols. Pujols was arguably the best player in the game through much of the first decade of this century, so at first glance, no one could knock the Angels for signing him to a 10 year, $240M deal prior to the 2012 season. Mind you, he was already 32, around the typical peak for a position player, so there were warning flags there alone. The two last seasons he played with St.Louis were stellar, as usual: .312/42/118 with an 1.011 OPS (some 73% better thanleague average) then .299/37/99 , .906 OPS. The WAR those years were 7.5 and 5.3. Brilliant.
Los Angeles Anaheim could have looked good if they signed him to a four-year deal, even though he’s only made the All Star team once with them. 2012-15, he was still a star performer. He drove in over 100 twice, had better than average OPS each year, andwhen his batting average dipped to .244 in 2015 he compensated with 40 longballs. His WAR for the cumulative four seasons was over 13. Not bad. Even 2016, at age 36, was quite good: .268/31/119, WAR 1.3 (by this time, he wasn’t adding anything defensively, it should be noted- he was probably a below average first baseman and frequently was a DH instead.) The last two years…not so good. In 2017, he hit .241 with 23 homers, a below-average .672 OPS and actually had a negative WAR of -1.8. Oops, not pleasant for a team to pay $25M to a player who actually was losing games for them.
2018 was a tad better, but not that much- .245/19/64,WAR of 0.5. The real bad news for the “halos”… they have him under contract through 2021, and due to their questionable bookkeeping, his salary keeps going up! He’ll make $30M in 2021, when he’ll be 41 years old.
So yes, right now Machado and Harper look very good Machado’s last two years saw him miss only 6 games in total, play solid “D” at both third and short and post 33 and 37 homers, WARS of 3.4 and 5.7. Harper, although he missed 41 games due to a knee injury (something you bet owners will have in the back of their minds when looking at his long term durability) in 2017, still posted a remarkable .319 average and 1.008 OPS that year and came back with a 34 homer, 100 RBI year last season. His WAR has added to 6 over those years.
Good? Of course. And in all likelihood, they’ll both be good for the next three or four years. Beyond that… things look a bit foggier. Can you blame a team for not wanting to sign them for ten or more seasons? I can’t.
One more thing. Manny and Bryce should perhaps look at Moneyball. Because while they are almost bound to add to any team they go to; there is a point where the reward isn’t as great as the cost. Statistically, if they get into the $30M or more a year plateau they are asking for, a team could likely add more by spending it on several players. As an example, the Yanks were marginally interested in Machado. But they added pitcher JA Happ who’s had WARS of 3.4 and 3.6 over the past 2 years, for about $17M a year. That leaves them about $13M in which they could add another player. Jed Lowrie went to the Mets for a mere $10M a year and over the past two years he’s tallied an 8.8 WAR. So,unless a team can bank on a huge boost in attendance from a marquee player there’s little benefit in adding one “megastar” at the expense of missing out on two or even three above average “character players.”
Harper and Machado will play somewhere in 2019, and will probably be very good. But they might not have $300 million or more contracts in their pockets… and that is good for baseball.