Woven into this season is a competition for next offseason, namely: Who wins the financial game between Bryce Harper and Manny Machado?
So far it is close with both sporting eight homers and gaudy on-base numbers through Tuesday.
Both will be rewarded financially, short of substantial injury or decrease in skill. But they are striving for records, which means defying the market forces that held down free-agent contract offers this past offseason. It helps that Aaron Judge celebrates his 26th birthday Thursday, and both Harper and Machado are younger than last year’s AL Rookie of the Year.
The largest contract currently belongs to Giancarlo Stanton: $325 million spread over 13 years. Could Harper and Machado reach $400 million — or more? They have youth and extreme talent.
But the game works in funny ways.
Take Judge and Stanton, for example. Not long ago, it felt preordained that Harper would end up with his childhood favorite team, the Yankees. Then Judge rose and Stanton was obtained. So the Yankees’ discussion switched to Machado. But Didi Gregorius has emerged as a star at shortstop — and what if Miguel Andujar is blossoming into one at third, too?
It is why all Harper and Machado can truly control is their play, and so far in 2018, so great. Harper is leading the NL in homers and walks while sporting a 1.048 OPS. Machado leads the majors in total bases (63) and had a 1.154 OPS, third best in the majors (Gregorius led, by the way, at 1.229).
Machado’s transition back to shortstop has gone well, but scouts continue to maintain that defensively he is fine at short, but brilliant at third. Machado says he wants to stay at shortstop. Whether he will stay in Baltimore all season is more unlikely after the Orioles lost 17 of 23 to open the year. A rebuild is needed, and trading Machado would be a start.
Harper (Scott Boras) and Machado (Dan Lozano) are represented by powerful agents who also will compete to establish new markets. Might one or both decide to go shorter in length, but larger in annual dollars? For example, a four-year, $160 million deal would make either the first-ever $40 million-a-year player and also a free agent again entering his age-30 season. And a willingness to do a shorter deal might net more than $40 million per.
For now, Harper vs. Machado provides a main event to follow throughout the season. Here is an undercard based on what occurred last offseason:
1. Stanton vs. J.D. Martinez — After Stanton (59) and Judge (52), Martinez hit the most homers last year (45) despite just 432 at-bats. Once the Yanks obtained Stanton, it felt like just a matter of time until the Red Sox countered with Martinez (five years, $110 million).
Neither has had an extended hot streak that defined them this year. Martinez has an .849 OPS, but is on a three-game streak of 0-for-11 with eight strikeouts. Stanton has been booed at home for his strikeout-prone ways. Which of the two gets hottest longest to help an AL East super power?
2. Jake Arrieta vs. Yu Darvish — The Cubs prioritized starting pitching, yet let Arrieta walk and paid Darvish (six years, $126 million) instead. Arrieta wound up signing for three years at $75 million with the Phillies. Both pitchers went deep into the offseason waiting for larger deals that never materialized.
So far it is disadvantage Cubs. Darvish has exacerbated concerns about his fortitude that peaked during a disastrous World Series by producing a 6.86 ERA in his first four Cubs starts. Arrieta is 2-0 with a 2.04 ERA so far this season.
3. The Yankees’ quest to get under the luxury tax vs. that of the Dodgers — Both clubs maneuvered to stay under the $197 million threshold. Among other things, neither signed Darvish — which might be a blessing. The Dodgers actually acquired Matt Kemp to wash short-term money off the books in exchange for his longer pact with a strong expectation they would just release him. Kemp, though, lost significant weight and has been among Los Angeles’ best hitters.
Both financial heavyweights stumbled early, with the Yankees so far righting themselves better. Both have reached into the minors already for their best prospects — Gleyber Torres and Walker Buehler. Both continue to see if they can thrive in an untraditional way for them: counting pennies.
4. Marlins’ tank job vs. Rays’ tank job — Quality baseball in Florida probably ended with the Grapefruit League. Both teams traded or lost most of their offensive heft this offseason — Stanton, Dee Gordon, Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich for Miami, and Corey Dickerson, Evan Longoria, Logan Morrison and Steven Souza for Tampa Bay.
They began a combined 13-30 and had the two lowest average attendances for teams with at least 10 home games. The Rays have a better farm system to sustain somewhat. The modern record for worst run differential is minus-349 by the 1932 Red Sox. The Marlins were on pace for minus-409 (the White Sox are actually on pace for minus-413, while the Royals were at minus-362).
5. The Rockies’ pen buildup vs. the Brewers’ outfield buildup — No teams kept doubling down in one area like these clubs.
Colorado signed the three biggest free-agent relief deals of the offseason, landing Wade Davis, Jake McGee and Bryan Shaw for $106 million — more than all but four teams spent in the free-agency period. And that is while being in the midst of long-term deals with Mike Dunn and Adam Ottavino. Davis and Ottavino have been terrific, but the Rockies had a 5.28 ERA as McGee and Shaw have struggled. Shaw, whom the Mets contemplated seriously, had allowed three homers and 17 hits in 11 2/3 innings.
Adding Yelich and Lorenzo Cain, who both have played brilliantly despite an oblique injury that cost Yelich time, has enabled Milwaukee to weather outfield production regression from Ryan Braun and, especially, Domingo Santana.
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