|Harper (left) and Machado are holding out for record paydays (12Up)|
Records are made to be broken, but so far neither deal has been surpassed by a free agent* in any sport. The closest anyone's gotten were Albert Pujols and Robinson Cano, who both signed 10-year, $240 million deals in 2011 and 2013, respectively. That's going to change this winter, however; it's only a matter of when.
[*Giancarlo Stanton (13 years/$325 million) and Miguel Cabrera (10 years/$292 million) both later eclipsed Rodriguez via contract extensions, not as free agents. The highest paid athlete is boxer Canelo Alvarez, who's currently on an 11-fight, $365 million deal.]
Bryce Harper and his agent, Scott Boras (the same agent who negotiated Rodriguez's first megadeal), have had their sights set on the record since Harper was smashing 500-foot homers and making magazine covers as a teenager. He debuted with the Washington Nationals at 19 in 2012, making his first All-Star team en route to winning NL Rookie of the Year honors. He was an All-Star again in 2013 before putting together one of the greatest offensive seasons ever in 2015, when he won the NL MVP unanimously. The Chosen One had arrived.
While Harper hasn't been able to replicate that historic campaign, he showed what his ceiling can be. He showcased it again last summer by winning the Home Run Derby at Nationals Park, wowing the hometown crowd with a display for the ages that included 14 homers in the final 47 seconds and 45 overall. While injuries have often prevented Harper from reaching his full potential, he's still been one of baseball's 12 most valuable position players throughout his career. He's slugged at least 20 homers and been an All-Star in all but one of his seven seasons, and he was headed for a second MVP award in 2017 before hyperextending his knee after slipping on a wet base. Harper's 26 years old, he just led the Major Leagues in walks, and he has MVP potential. He is, in other words, a superstar.
He's not the only one whose services are available this winter, however. Manny Machado, last seen during the World Series with the Los Angeles Dodgers, is arguably just as good as Harper. Machado, who's just four months older than Harper, also debuted in 2012 and immediately emerged as one of the best players in baseball. In 2013 he was an All-Star en route to leading the AL in doubles, and starting in 2015 he's topped 30 homers every year.
While not quite the force that Harper is at the plate, Machado's a comparable baserunner and an elite defender at a more challenging position, earning a pair of Gold Gloves for his outstanding work at the hot corner (he can also play shortstop, but not as well as third). He's one of 15 position players to compile at least 30 fWAR since 2012, tallying virtually the same amount as Harper in one fewer game. That hasn't translated to an MVP yet, but it has helped the four-time All-Star to three top-10 finishes despite playing for mostly mediocre teams in Baltimore. And whereas Harper has struggled with injuries, Machado has been extremely durable, appearing in at least 156 games in five of his last six seasons.
|Nearly 20 years later, A-Rod's superdeal is still the standard (SI)|
In the old days, that would have sparked a feeding frenzy between baseball's richest teams. The Red Sox Yankees, Cubs, and Dodgers would've opened up their vaults for them, spawning a bidding war the likes of which baseball has never seen. But, as last winter's slow-moving market proved, times have changed. Teams are not willing to pursue free agents as aggressively as they used to, not when it means committing large sums of money to ageing players who will cost them compensatory draft picks, luxury tax penalties, and payroll flexibility. Better to drag out negotiations and drive down the price once Spring Training is underway and players start getting desperate.
But if there was ever a player to break the bank for, it's Machado and Harper. Sure, they have red flags and rub a lot of people the wrong way, but they're young and athletic and certifiable stars. There's not too many of those left in baseball these days, so they're sure to attract eyeballs and sell jerseys. Neither has won a championship, which should continue to drive them after the ink dries on their new contracts. They'll instantly transform whichever lineup they join and add multiple wins to a team by themselves. Not everyone can afford them, but everyone could use them.
It's hard to reconcile, then, why both remain unsigned despite playing different positions and negotiating with different teams. The Dodgers have the money and the roster space for Harper after trading away Matt Kemp and Yasiel Puig, while the Phillies, White Sox, and Yankees all need Machado on the left side of their infields. So what's taking so long?
It's not as though teams haven't tried to sign either player. Harper rejected a 10-year, $300 million offer from the Nationals, which would have made him the richest free agent ever (Washington has reportedly since upped its offer). Machado received an offer from the White Sox, albeit a smaller one closer to $200 million. Both are worth more than that, and they know it. But is there a team willing to give it to them?
We'll just have to wait and see.