Back when this offseason was nothing more than mid-winter fodder for baseball writers and fans dreaming of more exciting free agent classes, Bryce Harper was always at the top of my list for the Cubs. But a lot has changed since then.
Financial issues aside – and despite many other interesting free agents – Harper was always supposed to be the guy who coming to Chicago to join his friend Kris Bryant while bolstering the core and extending the competitive window. But last winter, the rumor mill decided to throw a wrench in those plans in the form of one unexpectedly available superstar, Manny Machado. Around this time last year, Machado’s name started popping up in trade rumors with the Cubs and, frankly, after the fourth or fifth post re-affirming both teams’ interest in getting something done, it felt pretty serious (it being the Cubs’ interest).
Those rumors carried over somewhat into the season when Machado was once again dangled as a trade candidate and continued, really, until he was dealt to the Dodgers at the deadline. And if I’m being perfectly honest, I actually thought Machado could end up being the Cubs answer to Addison Russell, until we learned about their desire to spend carefully this winter. But now, it seems, even if this entire spending thing really is a smokescreen, the Cubs still aren’t likely to be in on Machado.
In fact, his market seems to have precipitated down to just three teams: the Phillies, Yankees, and White Sox.
Yankees contingent dined with Manny Machado, his wife and agent tonight in Manhattan. Yanks are interested and in the game, along with Chisox and Phillies. Tour was believed to be those 3 teams, no mysteries.
— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) December 20, 2018
Unlike Harper, who had teams meet with him at the Winter Meetings or at agent Scott Boras’ offices in L.A. (which clouds who’s actually involved), Machado did the whole “team tour” thing, and that keeps things fairly transparent. More teams getting involved/scheduling a meeting is always possible, of course – the Cubs seemingly didn’t really start to push aggressively for Yu Darvish last year until about now – but we’re pretty deep into the winter already. At this point, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that those three teams really are it for Machado.
So what does that mean for him? Well, fortunately for him, he’s got the right three teams involved in the mix. Would he and his agents love if teams like the Dodgers and Cubs started throwing their weight around? Absolutely. But he’s got two of the richest teams in baseball fighting over him – the Yankees (who met with him yesterday) and the Phillies (who are meeting with him today) – as well as one hungry, corner-turning team, the Sox (met with him earlier this month), driving the market forward. These are just enough and the right participants to get the contract he’s probably expecting.
As for favorites, well, at this point it’s a little hard to determine. The Yankees are reportedly “enamored” with Machado, believing he’s the perfect fit, and have always felt like team 1A. But the Phillies promised to spend “stupid” amounts of money this offseason and so far haven’t, coming up short on Patrick Corbin and J.A. Happ, while giving Andrew McCutchen a solid, but relatively modest contract. The White Sox, meanwhile, can offer Machado something neither team can: a chance to be the guy on an up-and-comer. If I had to rank the likeliness of each destination, I’d probably go Yankees, Phillies, Sox, in that order, but I really think all three teams are in play. For what it’s worth, Ken Rosenthal made the case for the Phillies to stop mucking around and sign the star free agent as recently as this morning.
And fortunately, I think Machado winding up with the Phillies is the best case scenario for the Cubs. As one MLB exec put it to Ken Rosenthal, the Phillies “worst nightmare” would be Machado landing with the Yankees while Bryce Harper is still a free agent. That would put a ton of pressure on the Phillies to sign Harper (given all their promises) and I think that pressure would be real enough to spur a little action on their part. If Machado winds up in Philly, however, the Cubs might improve their position on Harper, vis a vis the rest of his market.
Then again, maybe Harper won’t wind up in Philly anyway:
Heyman on WFAN said that the Phils know that Harper doesn't want them and they're focusing all their attention on Machado.
Take that FWIW.
— Jack Fritz (@JackFritzWIP) December 20, 2018
While the Cubs absence from Harper’s market has been more dot-connecting and speculation, the Yankees have been rather explicit. They’re not interested in adding another outfielder, period, let alone one that costs as much as Harper. You can never really count them out on any star free agent, but their interest in Harper seems to be as tame as possible. The White Sox, meanwhile, would still be interested in Harper, no doubt, but I think, in isolation, the Cubs really could land him over the Sox even if they offered slightly less money (or at least a more team-favorably-structured contract). And even if they don’t, the Sox have already begun to walk back their interest in handing out the sort of contract it would take to land either star. There’ll be other teams in on Harper – like the Dodgers – of course, but getting the Phillies and Yankees out of the way would change quite a bit.
At this point, given that Machado is wrapping him his tours later today, it feels likely that he’ll sign before Harper. And your rooting interest, as far as I can tell, is that he winds up in Philly, the team he’s meeting with today.