Major League Baseball teams promised 3 players a lot of money over the past two weeks. First, Manny Machado broke the winter free agency thaw with a surprise 10 year deal worth $300M with the Padres. That helped set the market, as then the Colorado Rockies signed their star third baseman a year before he hit free agency. Nolan Arenado, who is superior defensively to Manny Machado at the hot corner in my opinion, and of course his offensive numbers can be skewed in his favor by playing his home games in Colorado. Arenado signed an 8 year extension for $260M, which pays about $2M more per year than Machado’s $30M average. Then finally this week Bryce Harper signed a 13 year deal with the Phillies for $330M. Let the season begin.
In these three deals we see three very different paths and perspectives taken by the three young superstars.
Manny Machado chose a young Padres team with high potential in the #1 prospect system but a team that hasn’t sniffed the playoffs since 2010, been in the playoffs since 2006, and been to a World Series since 1998. Machado was also the only one that wasn’t with the original team that drafted him when this free agency situation came up, so it seemed most likely he wouldn’t remain with the Dodgers or return to the Orioles with any sentimentality. Machado has an opt out clause after just 5 years, which gives him some security if San Diego hasn’t turned a winning corner he can try and move to a team that can win(or pay him more).
Nolan Arenado chose not to test the free agency waters, perhaps disillusioned by this winter that was supposed to be all about Machado and Harper and instead devolved into a few teams playing chicken with contracts that developed very slowly. He stayed with his home team that to their credit have made the playoffs the past two years and even forced a Game 163 before just losing out on the NL West Pennant crown. Sure – he ended up being the highest paid on an annual basis and will likely sign another contract in his career.
Then we have Bryce Harper. Ever since his rookie season we knew he would most likely one day test free agency. His agent is Scott Boras after all. He seemed to enjoy Washington DC though, and famously lit up the Home Run Derby in 2018 that was played in DC. It was now his send-off, but just as easily could have been the moment he committed to DC for a long term future. Instead – he not only signed the longest contract in history at 13 years – he did it for less average money per season. Furthermore, with no opt outs, he will be a Phillie likely for the rest of his career barring trade as he will be 39 years old at the end of it. If “security” was really what Harper wanted – why didn’t he just work harder to stay in Washington, DC? Supposedly early on he rejected a Nationals offer for 10 years, $300M. Are the extra 3 years really worth taking a stand on that hill? He and his people apparently just wanted to cash in on his value right now and not risk less money later in his career.
We cannot predict the future – but it is likely that in five years Harper could be a steal from a value standpoint if his production levels out. At this point – the money keeps going out. On the same token, these players could be betting that teams aren’t going to continue handing out massive game changing contracts. Though with Mike Trout and Mookie Betts having contracts coming up in a few years, we shall see what direction those teams go.
Philadelphia last won a World Series in 2008, and we knew they were going to spend their “stupid money” this off-season. Arenado and Machado crowd the NL West now, with the mighty Dodgers still lurking and the Giants figuring out if Madison Bumgarner is going to be their cornerstone for the future, or if he will sign his next contract somewhere else.
Money does not buy championships, this we know. Individual players in baseball impact their team less than in any other sport. Yet these contracts do set the tones for franchises, and for smaller market teams everywhere it is encouraging to see the Padres and Rockies make big splashes. Personally, I think the Arenado team is even more encouraging, because with him you have a small market team home grow a star and keep him. Bryce Harper spurned that, and now moves to a new home for the next third of his lifetime.