A couple of players just got a whole lot richer and two fan bases are about to enjoy their season considerably more. The two most sought after free agents in recent history, third baseman/shortstop Manny Machado and outfielder Bryce Harper, whose negotiations dragged well into spring training, finally found a home this past week.
Machado, the polarizing and talented former Baltimore Oriole and Los Angeles Dodger star, signed with the San Diego Padres for $300 million over 10 years. Harper, a former Washington National who garners a similar intensity of scrutiny as Machado, signed with the Philadelphia Phillies for a record breaking $330 million over 13 years.
On the surface, it is easy to see the effect that the signing of both players has on the respective franchises. The Padres have the pleasure of signing one of the best two way superstars in the league. As a career .282 hitter, Machado has established himself as a consistent offensive threat.
He has hit at least 33 home runs in each of the past four seasons, with the majority of them being on pulled balls to left field. With his power alley being on the left side of the field, the glorified toy park that is Petco Park (the Padres’ home ballpark) should fit nicely into his strong suits as a hitter with a short porch in left and a deep gap in left center.
And while he hasn’t returned to his offensive peak from 2015, in which he posted an offensive WAR of 5.7 and an offensive runs above replacement score number of 54, he still continues to be one of the most dangerous hitters in the league.
Almost more important than his offensive potential is his defensive capabilities. Coming into the league, he made the move over to third base because of then Orioles’ shortstop J.J. Hardy. He quickly became a defensive wizard over at the hot corner, winning two Gold Gloves at the position.
However, when he made the move to shortstop in 2018, his defensive WAR dropped to -1.2 during his time in Baltimore, the first time it was negative in his entire career. The good news for the Padres is that Machado has showed a willingness to move back to third base to make room for top prospect Fernando Tatís Jr. The future looks bright in the infield with Machado, Tatís Jr. and fellow talented prospect Luis Urías filling into their respective positions.
Over on the East Coast, the Phillies had crafted one of the most formidable lineups in baseball even before the Harper signing. They traded for catcher J.T. Realmuto and shortstop Jean Segura and signed former MVP center fielder Andrew McCutchen. The front office would have considered it a successful offseason without the Harper signing. But the potential that Harper brings to the table is enough to make any Philly fan salivate. His offensive peak is well documented: the 2015 season is one of the best hitting displays ever, as he slashed .330/.460/.649 and posted an insane offensive WAR of 9.1.
It’s quite possible that he was signed off of the strength of that MVP season alone. With the pieces already in place for success, if Harper recreates a fraction of that season’s production, the Phillies will certainly be in the running to win the division.
However, the bottom of his production is scarily low, on both offense and defense. In two of the past three years, Harper has posted a sub .250 batting average. Just last year, he struck out a career high 169 times and posted the second lowest WAR of his career at 1.3. And to be quite honest, Harper is just not a good defender.
In four out of his seven as an MLB outfielder, he has posted a negative defensive WAR, with the lowest being last year at -3.2. He failed to make the ordinary and the difficult plays, lacking decent range and continually making careless mistakes. Whether or not his defensive misgivings last year were a product of the impending payday and not a sign of an actual defensive liability will be revealed this year.
These two free agent signings did not just have an effect on the Phillies and Padres. The two massive deals have created a ripple effect that impacts division rivals and future free agents alike. First off, the NL East has quickly turned into a proverbial arms race with four teams having a legitimate shot at the division title. While the Nationals lost Harper, they still have an amazingly talented young core spearheaded by outfielders Juan Soto and Víctor Robles and made a number of veteran signings including starting pitchers Patrick Corbin and Aníbal Sánchez and second baseman Brian Dozier.
The New York Mets have the potential to contend, trading for second baseman Robinson Canó and All-Star closer Edwin Díaz. Even the Atlanta Braves, who were relatively quiet in making offseason acquisitions, remain to be the favorite in the division by signing third basemen Josh Donaldson and retaining right fielder Nick Markakis, who is the model of consistency on both sides of the ball. It’s a legitimate four way race that will be wildly entertaining.
Secondly, the enormous contracts that were signed are good news for two people: outfielders Mookie Betts and Mike Trout. The money that got thrown around for Harper and Machado should pale in comparison to what Betts and Trout could possibly receive. Betts, the reigning AL MVP, already has broken records with a $10 million arbitration deal in 2017 and a $20 million deal this past winter to keep him for an additional year before free agency after the 2020 season. Given that he is more talented and consistent than Harper, he should get more money through free agency or an extension.
And speaking of Trout, who in dollar-per-WAR calculations should be worth more than $70 million per season, it’s hard to overstate how much money he truly deserves. He is more valuable than Harper and Machado combined, and they signed for a combined $630 million. With $300 million being the new norm for superstar contracts, it is looking like Trout will receive upwards of that once he hits the market after the 2020 season.