Teams are already trying to get under the luxury tax threshold for next offseason. Why? Bryce Harper and Manny Machado are going to be free agents (barring unexpected extensions).
Harper is the closest comparable player to Mike Trout (the consensus best player in the game). Harper was actually rated ahead of Trout as a prospect and was better than him in 2015. Had Harper been healthy in both 2016 and 2017, could he have actually eclipsed Trout?
Machado is an elite defender who has also been compared to the next Miguel Cabrera. They also just happen to be both hitting free agency at 26 years old, which is a pretty rare feat.
So who will and who should sign them? We can automatically rule out all small-market teams: the Tampa Bay Rays, Oakland Athletics, Kansas City Royals, Milwaukee Brewers, Cleveland Indians, Cincinnati Reds, and the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Miami Marlins are trying to drastically lower payroll so can be ruled out as well. The Detroit Tigers and Chicago White Sox are rebuilding, and are either trying to lower payroll (Detroit), or are not known for giving out massive contracts (Chicago). The Minnesota Twins, San Diego Padres, Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies are mid-market teams who also can’t really afford these contracts. Reports already stated that the Baltimore Orioles can’t afford to re-sign Machado and so it can be assumed that they won’t be able to sign Harper either. The Toronto Blue Jays don’t give out long and expensive free agent contracts, and expecting either to go to Canada is highly unlikely. I should also add that I don’t think that the same team will sign both due to the massive contracts that they’re expected to sign. Harper is a RF who can also play CF and presumably LF, Machado can sign as either a 3B or a SS (his preferred position). Neither will sign as a DH.
The Los Angeles Angels can’t afford to sign either player and then extend Trout (who is a free agent a year later). The Washington Nationals are set at 3B (Anthony Rendon) and SS (Trea Turner) and aren’t likely to be able to afford re-signing Harper and enticing him to stay in that market. The Atlanta Braves have a bad television revenue contract until 2020 and are rebuilding. The San Francisco Giants can’t afford either with all of the large contracts that they already have on the books, and the New York Mets don’t spend though could use help at 3B. The Boston Red Sox need power but are expected to sign J.D. Martinez this offseason, and with Andrew Benintendi and Mookie Betts they don’t have room for Harper (they are reportedly shopping Jackie Bradley Jr.). They could go after Machado, but would have to trade either Rafael Devers or Xander Bogaerts to make room and that sounds like too much work to go over the luxury tax. The St. Louis Cardinals have a stacked OF and tend to build their team from within, they want a 3B but are far more likely to sign Josh Donaldson. Seattle won’t add another big contract and especially not under Jerry DiPoto.
Who does this leave us with? Well this leaves us with the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers, Texas Rangers, Chicago Cubs, Houston Astros, and the Philadelphia Phillies. LA need Harper the most due to their shaky OF situation and with their current RF Yasiel Puig hitting free agency, but their front office wants to avoid going over the luxury tax and giving out massive contracts. Making things worse, they have to deal with extending Clayton Kershaw who can opt out of his contract. Houston have no room for Machado due to having Alex Bregman at 3B and Carlos Correa at SS, and would have to move Josh Reddick to DH and trade their OF prospects. I expect them to focus on starting pitching anyway. Chicago have no room for Machado with 3B Kris Bryant and SS split between Javier Baez and Addison Russell. They also have Jason Heyward and his horrible contract to have to start in RF (his only value is in great defense, and a move to CF would heavily lower it). Albert Almora Jr. is a better defensive and far cheaper option in CF, and Kyle Schwarber (who they’re very high on) is in LF). They don’t need Harper or Machado and won’t end up with either one, considering they’ll eventually need to lock up their core and their far bigger pitching needs.
Texas will have 3B Adrian Beltre hitting free agency and SS Elvis Andrus potentially opting out, however they have less room in the OF with Nomar Mazara (RF), Willie Calhoun (LF), and Delino Deshields Jr. (CF) and will likely have to consider rebuilding or adding multiple pieces. The New York Yankees have top prospect Miguel Andujar for 3B, Didi Gregorius at SS, and top prospect Gleyber Torres at 2B (but as an option at both his natural SS and 3B). They also have Aaron Judge AND Giancarlo Stanton in the RF mix, and with LF Brett Gardner hitting free agency at the same time, one likely taking over LF. Aaron Hicks is the CF. Harper however grew up a fan of the team and chose #34 in honor of Mickey Mantle (4+3 = Mantle’s #7). The Philadelphia Phillies are rebuilding but have the money and the need (RF is currently up for grabs between Aaron Altherr and Nick Williams and 3B Maikel Franco is on the trade block).
So where will Harper and Machado end up and who should sign Machado? Philadelphia seems to be on the rise and they have the money and the need, so signing Machado makes sense. However which team will sign who? Despite the potential OF logjam, Bryce Harper will end up in pinstripes. I could see him moving to 1B if he has to, but I just don’t see him playing anywhere other than New York or LA due to his love for big market cities. An interesting possibility is New York trading Stanton to his dream team: the Los Angeles Dodgers. This was actually suggested by reporter Ken Rosenthal. LA will still need a RF and Harper would be more expensive, while Stanton is from the area and grew up as a fan of the team. In fact, Stanton’s dream was to end up in Dodger Blue this year, but they didn’t try too hard to make it happen…this year at least. Machado will end up in Philadelphia. They have the money and are getting ready for a splash, while reportedly being very very enamored with him.
Will I be right? Who knows. Maybe Harper ends up with Boston and Machado goes to Atlanta. The only guarantee is that next offseason is going to be fun to follow.
Photos courtesy of Wikipedia.org and USAToday.