Bryce Harper and Manny Machado are two great baseball players whose stories of developing greatness have often played out simultaneously. Harper and Machado were the #1 and #3 overall picks in the same 2011 draft, by two franchises inhabiting the same media markets.
Each debuted a year later in only his age 19 season and seemingly ever since the rest of the baseball world has been waiting - in some cases, drooling - over when both would be free agents.
Along with the anticipation about them being free agents is a “How high will they go?” question about the contracts each will command. Because Harper and Machado are so young and so good, there’s become an expectation that one or both will reach previously-unseen heights in years and dollars in a new contract. Giancarlo Stanton, they are coming for you.
So it’s not a shock to read from the USA Today that the Nationals have already resigned themselves to the fact that Harper will be gone in a couple more seasons because they believe he will be seeking a contract in excess of ten years with a likely total value of over $400 million. That assessment comes directly from an anonymous “high-ranking Nationals executive.”
Harper’s agent, Scott Boras, promptly issued a denial to Yahoo’s Jeff Passan, saying that he has had no discussions with the Nationals. This may be a bit of a disingenuous denial if one of Boras’ underlings has been talking to the Nationals. Boras is the agent to the stars, but not even he does it all himself.
Whatever Harper is or isn’t demanding right now, the fact is that barring a disastrous cratering over the next couple of seasons, he’s going to command a lot of money. Hearing about any dollar figure attached to his name is interesting. Machado will be up in that stratosphere as well.
Back in May, Fox’s Ken Rosenthal floated the $400 million number for Machado. Around that time, MLB Network’s Jon Heyman was writing of a possible $500 million price tag for Harper. Heyman has a reputation for knowing what Boras is thinking. That number didn’t come out of thin air or Heyman’s imagination.
Why shouldn’t those two young stars want a ton of money and a lot of guaranteed years? They’ll each be hitting the free agent market after their age 25 seasons. That’s exceptionally rare in today’s game. That means that a team signing either player will still be getting years of his prime before the decline years kick in.
For both Machado and Harper, their primes are so good that even if they steadily decline from their peaks, there will be a lot of above-average seasons for a team to enjoy.
Baseball is flush with cash. Teams are going to have to pay to get great young players like them as free agents. Teams that are really serious are going to probably have to offer more than just money. Opt-outs, no-trade clauses, whatever else.
Want to get a player who was worth 9+ WAR at age 22 like Harper? That’s going to cost you a whole lot if he does it again before he’s a free agent. Want to get a player who turned in three 6+ WAR seasons by the end of his age 23 season? That’s going to cost you, too.
A current baseball darling is Chicago’s Kris Bryant, who won the Rookie of the Year award last year and the MVP this year while beating great in the postseason on the way to the Cubs’ first World Series title since 1908. Bryant just finished his age 24 season. He’s older than both Harper and Machado. He will not get to sign a free agent contract until after his age 29 season.
One player whose situation does compare to Harper and Machado - he’s better than them both, actually; he’s better than everyone - is Mike Trout. If Trout hadn’t signed a six year, $144.5 million extension that kicked in starting with the 2015 season, he, too, would have been a free agent following the 2018 season, at which time he will have just completed his age 26 season.
Trout instead took some security of one guaranteed big payday. That extension for the best player in baseball for five years running will pay him $34 million a year each year from 2018-20. If Trout had gone year-to-year and become a free agent at the same time as everyone else, he’d probably command an even greater salary at his peak than that.
We can throw around numbers all day about what it will take to keep Machado in an Orioles uniform and bite our nails over whether the Orioles can or will be able to pay that when the time comes. It’s understandable to worry about it. Machado has been a great Oriole and it’s grim imagining the team without him - especially if the team that lands him is one of the Evil Empires farther up I-95 in the division.
If Machado keeps performing at the level he’s performed, he’s going to get a lot of money. If he takes another step forward in his offensive game, he’s going to get even more money.
Is Machado going to top Trout’s $34 million salary as an average annual value? Trout himself ought to top it by the time he’s a free agent again. That may be a big ask, even for big budget teams, but Machado’s earned it through his career to date.
In the most recent season, Fangraphs valued Machado at $51.8 million. He was worth a $54.3 million salary the year before. So, can he demand or would he be worth $30+ million? Well, yes.
The Orioles have never gone above a $23 million AAV, which they did with Chris Davis. It’s a big leap from there to $30+ million. Yet they don’t have much money committed beyond 2018. They only have $25 million on the books for 2019 and $16 million for 2020.
That will go up as they make other free agent signings between now and then, and you’ll have third-year arbitration salaries for Kevin Gausman and Jonathan Schoop too, plus the rest of the roster. But nonetheless there will be room for Machado if the Orioles have the nerve to make a signing twice as big as the Davis contract.
If recent O’s payroll trends continue, they could be carrying a $180 million payroll by 2019. Yes, $30 million or more of that going to one player is a lot. If he goes off the charts and wins the next two MVPs and that number sails to $40 million AAV, Machado’s still worth it.
Consider that this year, Machado was worth 6.5 Fangraphs WAR. Orioles position players combined to be worth 19.4 WAR. A third of all value created by their hitters was from Machado alone! Unless something radical changes, the Orioles won’t be able to afford to NOT have Machado on the team. There’s no one like him in baseball.
There’s still two years before the worries become an urgent concern about whether Machado will stay here. But with every story that comes along with huge asking prices, you can’t help but notice that two years isn’t very long at all.