10 Degrees: Manny Machado vs. Bryce Harper and the frenzy for the two largest contracts in American pro sports

Jeff Passan
MLB columnist

In less than five months, the frenzy for Bryce Harper and Manny Machado will commence. Born 102 days apart, separated now by 38 miles of highway, forever compared because of their proximity in age and location, they will represent the two greatest free agent talents since Alex Rodriguez reached the open market at 25 years old and signed a $252 million contract that more than doubled the previous record. Wherever Harper and Machado go, however much they get, the shift in the economics of sports will be tectonic. It will dwarf NFL quarterback salaries and make the NBA supermax look minimum-security. Major League Baseball lags behind its competitors in plenty of ways. Guaranteeing them obscene amounts of money is not one of them.

Nearly three years ago, I wrote what I believe was the first substantive look at the enormity of the Class of 2018-19. And while stars have faded and emerged, and the economic leverage of the sport has tilted decidedly in ownership’s favor, little has changed in terms of Harper and Machado – except, perhaps, the order in which they deserve to be listed.

Almost always it’s Bryce and Manny, Harper and Machado. This season is showing a side of …

1. Manny Machado that evaluators have long hoped they would see – one that paired his beautiful right-handed swing with a little more patience and a lot more contact. And despite existing in a Baltimore Orioles lineup that features one other regular who’s even a league-average hitter, Machado is turning in far and away the finest season of his career, one that justifies the notion that he belongs first in the conversation – and deserves a larger sum of money, too.

Now, it’s important to note that Machado’s .327/.398/.633 line alone does not make him worthier of megadeal than Harper. Nor does his manning the shortstop position, which he does well, or his ability to transition back to third base, where well doesn’t begin to describe his luminescence. When talking about players in this stratosphere, secondary and tertiary things matter, and ownership groups might even argue that …

2. Bryce Harper’s marketability is a primary factor, or at least a co-primary factor, in being willing to lay out hundreds of millions of dollars to secure his services for the next decade – a contract length, by the way, that is at least reasonable for either player seeing as both are today 25 and will hit free agency at 26.

Harper is the closest thing baseball has to a superstar, someone whose existence permeates beyond general baseball fandom. For a baseball player, his face is splashed across TV. He gets the marketing thing and is good at it. There’s a good story to sell, too, if he winds up somewhere outside of Washington: that, like his closest facsimile, LeBron James, he felt he needed to go elsewhere to unlock his ability to win. Or, if he stays in D.C., it’s every bit as sellable: that this is home, where he belongs.

All of this is part of Harper, every bit as much as the numbers, which at their best beat Machado’s. The .330/.460/.649 line also came in 2015 and makes this season’s .232/.371/.527 line look paltry in comparison. And while it’s not easy to quibble with the guy leading the National League in home runs and on pace to hit 50, Harper is almost the victim of his own standards. Baseball knows how good he can be. It wants him to be that good again.

The perils of success color every great player, and …

3. Clayton Kershaw is no exception. For half a decade, he regularly threw 200-plus innings of elite baseball. Between 2011 and 2015, his ERA was 2.11, he struck out 1,249 against 242 walks and he threw 1,128 innings. That’s almost identical to Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez’s best five-year stretches.

So to see Kershaw, with an opt-out clause this offseason offering free agency, leave his first start back from the disabled list to take up residence there again was a sad reminder of not just pitchers’ fallibility but Kershaw’s. Him opting out of two years at $65 million seemed a fait accompli, particularly when it would give him that second bite of the apple at age 30 after his seven-year, $215 million extension.

Now, almost every substantive opt-out looks like it won’t be exercised. Is David Price really going to forgo the last four years and $127 million of his deal with the Boston Red Sox? Nope. Jason Heyward wouldn’t get half of the five years and $105 million he’ll opt into with the Chicago Cubs. Only Elvis Andrus seems likely to leave behind the four years and $58 million remaining on his contract with the Texas Rangers, and even that isn’t a sure thing with the market bearing what it did for those 30 and older last winter.

Between that and his two trips to the disabled list this season …

4. Josh Donaldson, 32 years old, may be having the worst season of any prospective free agent. First his shoulder landed him on the DL – and left him throwing sidearm from third base upon his return. And now a calf injury has him back for a second time, compounding the .234/.333/.423 line that pales next to his last three seasons, in which Donaldson’s OPS lived between .939 and .953.

Josh Donaldson is back on the disabled list in Toronto, this time for a calf injury. (AP)

He isn’t old news in Toronto, exactly, but Blue Jays fans are steeling themselves to his departure and rallying around the arrival of his eventual replacement, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who is hitting a paltry .409 and driving in more than a run a game at Double-A, where he bides his time before his warranted call-up. It would help if Donaldson would get healthy, start hitting and facilitate a trade.

Donaldson’s 33rd birthday is Dec. 8, the day before the Winter Meetings begin, and by then we’re likely to have a better sense of how this market is operating and whether it treats elite players that are older with the same dubiousness that it did all of those above 30. Outfielder Charlie Blackmon, wary of that as well as the fear of being dinged for playing in Colorado, jumped the market this winter and signed an extension – one of just a few in this class, with Jean Segura, Dee Gordon and Yadier Molina the other big names. Donaldson could have done the same, as could have …

5. A.J. Pollock, whom the previous regime running the Arizona Diamondbacks wanted to lock up. It looked particularly canny for the 30-year-old Pollock, who was a National League MVP frontrunner, until a thumb injury that could keep him out for two months. The rap on Pollock is he’s never healthy, and freak though the injury may have been, it reinforces the truth that in his six full major league seasons, Pollock will have played more than 140 games once and may crack 100 in only half of them.

Among Pollock, Donaldson and Daniel Murphy, injuries have wrecked the walk years of arguably the three best non-Machado-and-Harper bats. As Murphy limped around his rehab assignment this week, one scout who saw him said his right knee looks like either he re-injured it or it never healed fully in the first place. Four months remain in the season, plenty of time for all three to remind via their performance why teams loved them in the first place. One glance at …

6. Michael Brantley proves a player can make even recent injuries seem like long ago. Yes, Brantley’s play in the outfield keeps him from scoring big in the public Wins Above Replacement rankings, but a .323/.369/.549 line with an 8.4 percent strikeout rate tickles the fancy of every team with a hole in the middle of its lineup.

And that’s a lot of teams. MLB as a whole is batting .246/.317/.407. Five teams have an OPS below .700. More than a third of teams aren’t slugging .400. Hitters like Brantley are increasingly rare, and he is going to test the wills of teams that cringe at giving big money long-term to a 31-year-old who missed almost all of 2016 and half of 2017.

And yet that bat. That beautiful, left-handed swing. Brantley has made himself a nice chunk of change thus far, and …

7. Patrick Corbin may be his equivalent on the pitching side. Whether that lasts is one of the more interesting questions of the next five months, because the precipitous dip in Corbin’s fastball velocity over his last half-dozen starts is alarming.

First six starts: 40 IP, 23 H, 7 BB, 55 K, 2.25 ERA, .165/.215/.295 opponents’ slash
Last six starts: 35.1 IP, 28 H, 13 BB, 43 K, 3.82 ERA, .214/.290/.366 opponents’ slash

And look: Those last six starts aren’t bad. Every team will take that. Every team wouldn’t pay $100 million for that guy – especially one with a Tommy John scar on his elbow – whereas they certainly would consider doing so for April Corbin.

The other candidate for biggest upgrade in pay: Houston’s Charlie Morton, who won’t be getting $100 million because this is happening in his age-34 season but nonetheless will find himself deluged by $20 million-plus-a-year offers for two or three years. His stuff is better than ever. His usage patterns are optimized, going fastball-and-curveball heavy, like …

8. Jose Fernandez used to. Fernandez was going to be the other marquis free agent this winter – the one who was going to do for pitchers what Machado and Harper plan to for position players.

Because he is not here, and because there are so many good players beyond the upper echelon who deserve mention, here is a one-sentence status report on 50 pending free agents who have not been mentioned. Each comes with a rating spanning Way Up, Up, Neutral, Down and Way Down. In alphabetical order:

  • Matt Adams, 1B/OF, NEUTRAL – This is not an indictment on Adams, whose performance has been up, so much as it is a reflection of the industry, which sees free agent first basemen as fungible.
  • Cody Allen, RP, NEUTRAL – Almost warranted down following the walk-off job he allowed Sunday, but hitters’ line against him has been typically flaccid.
  • Adrian Beltre, 3B, NEUTRAL – If he wants to keep playing at 40, more than one team will gladly give him the opportunity.
  • Asdrubal Cabrera, 2B, UP – Cooled off after a hot start but almost certainly distinguished himself in a loaded class.
  • Trevor Cahill, SP, UP – Helter-skelter though he may be, Cahill is riding Oakland’s ballpark and great defense to another strong season.
  • Lonnie Chisenhall, OF, DOWN – Finally coming back from missing nearly two months with a calf strain.
  • Bartolo Colon, SP, NEUTRAL – He’s going to pitch forever; just live with it.
  • Nelson Cruz, DH, DOWN – Not that an .800-plus OPS is anything to sniff at, but Cruz has put up a .900-plus on the regular.
  • Daniel Descalso, UT, WAY UP – Next to Pollock, he has been the best offensive player on the Diamondbacks, who are hitting an inconceivable .217 as a team.
  • Brian Dozier, 2B, DOWN – A league-average bat is perfectly acceptable for most second basemen; Dozier hit 78 home runs over the last two seasons and isn’t most.
  • Nathan Eovaldi, SP, NEUTRAL – While his first start back from his second Tommy John surgery was about as good as it gets with six no-hit innings, the question always will be health.
  • Eduardo Escobar, UT, UP – Showing more power than ever with all the standard versatility.
  • Jeurys Familia, RP, UP – Back to one of the best second-tier closers in the game, with a low home run rate and his best strikeout-to-walk ratio since 2015.
  • Tyler Flowers, C, UP – Going to Atlanta brought out something entirely new and excellent in Flowers, who is playing the best baseball of his career.
  • Logan Forsythe, IF, WAY DOWN – After two excellent seasons in Tampa Bay, a profound disappointment since joining the Dodgers.
  • Freddy Galvis, SS, DOWN – Same as he’s been for years, only exacerbated by Petco Park: a weak-bat, good-glove shortstop.
  • Evan Gattis, C/DH, NEUTRAL – Good-hitting, bad-fielding catcher or mediocre-hitting, no-fielding DH.
  • Carlos Gomez, OF, NEUTRAL – Good glove making up for bat that still has him below the Mendoza Line.
  • Carlos Gonzalez, OF, DOWN – Not doing much to convince other teams they missed out by passing on him this winter.
  • Gio Gonzalez, SP, UP – More than a decade in the big leagues and still the same as he’s ever been: strikes out a lot of guys, walks too many and gets groundballs.
  • Marwin Gonzalez, UT, WAY DOWN – The thunderous bat of 2017 has reverted to the levels of five years ago, when he was a light-hitting utility sort.
  • Yasmani Grandal, C, UP – Back to showing good on-base skills and power following an atypical season.
  • Curtis Granderson, OF, NEUTRAL – Great start has regressed into a standard Granderson season, and the concern will be whether he can do it again at 38.
  • J.A. Happ, SP, UP – The rare fastball-heavy pitcher in 2018, his strikeout rate has spiked, and that will interest plenty of teams.
  • Matt Harvey, DOWN – Not a whole lot different with Cincinnati than he was in New York.
  • Jeremy Hellickson, SP, UP – The peripherals don’t quite match the ERA, and the strained hamstring suffered Sunday could be bad news, but his off-speed-heavy repertoire totally works in 2018.
  • Greg Holland, RP, WAY DOWN – On the DL now with a hip injury following 13 1/3 awful innings that coincided with a post-opening day signing.
  • Jose Iglesias, SS, NEUTRAL – Galvis but slightly better.
  • Jon Jay, OF, NEUTRAL – A total is-what-he-is kinda guy, which is someone who racks up singles and gets on base at a solid clip.
  • Adam Jones, OF, NEUTRAL – So consistent it’s almost comical, with OPSs the last five years of .780, .782, .746, .787 and .777 this year.
  • Joe Kelly, RP, UP – Reliable late-inning guy who can be called upon to close in a pinch.
  • Dallas Keuchel, NEUTRAL – Might be the most fascinating pitcher in the class in terms of how the market values him vs. what his past indicates he deserves.
  • Ian Kinsler, 2B, DOWN – Were the market for 36-year-old second basemen not soft, this would be way down, as Kinsler’s bat has slowed.
  • D.J. LeMahieu, 2B, NEUTRAL – Will get dinged for being a Colorado special, as his home OPS is almost 150 points higher than road, but can pick it at second, too.
  • Jed Lowrie, 2B, UP – Even if the numbers are slightly BABIP inflated, Lowrie’s offensive breakout is real enough that teams would love to have him.
  • Jonathan Lucroy, C, NEUTRAL – The bat shows flashes but simply not the consistency of his earlier years.
  • Lance Lynn, SP, DOWN – Even as his last three starts have been solid, Lynn’s lack of control – never a hallmark but never close to this bad – has been troubling.
  • Nick Markakis, OF, WAY UP – Here’s one way to go into free agency: Having a year almost identical to the one you did 10 years earlier.
  • Leonys Martin, OF, UP – One of the more curious major league deals of the offseason, Martin has rewarded Detroit’s faith with the best offensive output of his career to complement strong center-field defense.
  • Joe Mauer, 1B, NEUTRAL – As always, his on-base ability is superior and complemented by a lack of power for the position.
  • Andrew McCutchen, OF, DOWN – The power simply hasn’t accompanied him to San Francisco, and it doesn’t play in a corner-outfield spot.
  • Mike Moustakas, 3B, UP – The question has been whether he could string together strong back-to-back years, and he’s been even better than last season.
  • Bud Norris, RP, UP – The weirdest four words in the English language are: Bud Norris, Proven Closer.
  • Adam Ottavino, RP, WAY UP – Riding a monster strikeout rate and weak contact when hitters do make it, Ottavino has been one of the 10 best relievers in baseball this year.
  • Drew Pomeranz, SP, WAY DOWN – Hurt, hittable, hella wild: not the trifecta one desires entering free agency.
  • Wilson Ramos, C, UP – Hitting like he did before an awful torn ACL and catching regularly, Ramos will draw oodles of interest in the winter.
  • Garrett Richards, SP, UP – With the best raw stuff in the class, he’s someone worth dreaming on, particularly if he can last the season healthy.
  • Tyson Ross, RP UP – Always hesitant to say anything is way up with Ross because of the injury history, but the slider is still a monster pitch.
  • Hyun-Jin Ryu, SP, DOWN – It’s a shame he can’t stay healthy, because he’s quite good when he is.
  • CC Sabathia, SP, NEUTRAL – Should get a sniff somewhere as a back-end sort who can go five innings, which in a reliever-dominated era personified by …

9. Kelvin Herrera and the Royals riding a bullpen to a ring is more than acceptable. Herrera has edged himself into a grouping that at the beginning of the season felt like an impenetrable Cerberus: Craig Kimbrel, Andrew Miller and Zach Britton.

Kansas City Royals reliever Kelvin Herrera hasn’t walked a batter this season. (AP)

Kimbrel has been Kimbrel, the most consistent closer of his generation. Miller has been OK and injured, a pretty rough combination. And Britton hasn’t thrown a single pitch in the big leagues, though he should return for the Baltimore Orioles by the middle of the month.

Herrera, meanwhile, is primed to earn his third All-Star appearance. His ERA is 0.79. It’s June and he still hasn’t walked a batter. He has faced 82 batters and reached three balls just six times. And at just 28 years old, he’s a year and a half younger than Kimbrel, two years behind Britton and nearly a half-decade greener than Miller. Which doesn’t mean he’s going to get …

10. Manny Machado money, but then again, nobody else may, either. Not even Bryce Harper. And that’s always been a possibility – a small one, sure, but not like Dr. Strange’s one in 14 million. This version of Machado existed in plenty of alternate realities as well as the present one we’re living.

And because of it, before free agency begins, there will come the initial Manny Machado frenzy when the Orioles decide to trade him. He is the sort of player who’s so good that teams will disrupt their current rosters if it means adding him to make a run at a championship. It will be the last time a few months of Manny Machado won’t cost tens of millions of dollars.

Washington Nationals’ Bryce Harper, right, runs the bases past Baltimore Orioles shortstop Manny Machado after hitting a solo home run during the first inning of a baseball game Tuesday, May 29, 2018, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

It’s always foolish to float numbers, because for players of Machado and Harper’s ilk the market remains irrational, barring some sort of reckoning that affects even the tippy-top of the sport, which is quite unlikely. There are two typical approaches and one creative sort for Dan Lozano, Machado’s agent, and Scott Boras, who represents Harper.

  • Shoot the moon: Say the discussions start at $500 million and hope one of 30 teams is crazy enough to go there, because all it takes is one.
  • Start a bidding war: Start talks at $250 million and let teams crawl on top of one another until they’ve built a mountain of bids.
  • Seek extremes: Broach the possibility of a 15-year deal. Do the same for a five-year deal with the sport’s first $50 million average annual value. Stress creativity and see what teams may have in mind.

What makes this winter so alluring is the possibilities for Machado and Harper – particularly if Machado can keep up his production and Harper can get a little luckier on balls in play than the miserable .215 average he currently sports despite a hard-hit rate of 45.8 percent, which ranks 13th in the big leagues, and soft-hit rate of 7.8 percent, which is the fourth lowest.

The story of 2018 has yet to play out, and it won’t fully be told until the ink is dry on the two biggest contracts American professional sports ever has seen: Manny and Bryce, Bryce and Manny, true either way.

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