LAS VEGAS — No one in baseball is spending any money. The longest contract signed at the winter meetings was for three years (the Phillies for outfielder Andrew McCutchen). Instead of arguing which players did not deserve their deals, fans spent last week arguing about which former players did not deserve their Hall of Fame elections. And perhaps most concerning of all, superagent Scott Boras’s metaphors have become increasingly tortured, a sign that things are not going well. “When the nurse walks in the room with a thermometer, the issue is not what the thermometer says that day,” he said at one point, apparently about the Yankees. “The issue is the health of the patient when they're ready to leave the hospital. They're not ready to leave the hospital yet.”
The glacial winter makes the fate of two players in particular even more fascinating. Two of the best young talents in the sport, entering free agency in their prime? Rightfielder Bryce Harper and shortstop Manny Machado, both 26, are reportedly seeking as much as $400 million. In an era when 10 teams are chasing 100 wins and another 10 are chasing 100 losses, their market would seem limited if they were available alone; that both are pursuing record-breaking money makes the negotiations even more complicated as franchises consider their next decade.
So SI posed the question to more than a dozen current and former baseball officials: If you were going to commit roughly the equivalent of the GDP of Tonga to Harper or Machado, whom would you pick?
Of the 16 people interviewed for this piece, two abstained, one called it a dead heat and the others went seven for Harper and six for Machado. “This is hard,” many of them complained. Positional need did not come up often; both are so valuable that teams would move other personnel around to accommodate them.
Everyone stipulates to both players’ talent. If there’s a concern, it comes outside the box score. One NL official laughs and says, “Well, they both play like douchebags.” (He eventually landed on Harper.)
A quick rundown of incidents: Harper spent the early years of his career covered in Ultimate Warrior–style eyeblack and blowing kisses to punctuate home runs before undergoing something of an image transformation, to a guy who just wants, he says, to “make baseball fun again.” Machado is still cultivating his negative reputation, between his kicking of Jesús Aguilar in the NLCS and his declaration that he is “not the type of player that’s going to be Johnny Hustle.”
One AL executive points to the memo the league sends teams asking them not to comment on potential free agents, but agrees to list the criteria he would consider before making such a significant outlay. “Historical precedent,” he says. “Injury history, diet and training regimen. Character, community involvement, family, handedness, position, foot speed, bat speed, arm speed. Openmindedness, self-awareness.”
It’s not clear how much Machado cost himself this fall. A few people suggest giving him fewer years with a higher average annual value, to reduce the risk inherent in a long-term deal, but one points out that the shorter the years, the bigger the luxury-tax hit. Everyone who chose Harper said he would have made the same call in July. Machado’s makeup concerns are not new, one official explains. They just became more public this fall.
“It’s a turnoff, for sure,” says another AL executive, who went with Machado anyway. “It’s not a fatal flaw.”
And in fact, for all the questions about personality, two of the Machado votes came from people who had worked directly with him.
Harper seems largely to have overcome the personality questions. He plays so hard that some teams’ concerns come from that direction—he is liable to run into a wall and cost himself two months. But they believe he's ready to handle the pressure inherent in the deal he is likely to command. He was “designed to be a star since he was 16,” points out a third AL exec, so he has some sense of what is expected of him as the face of a franchise. You can trust him to show up at the children’s hospital and sign autographs for season-ticketholders, says the NL official. “Kids have to want to see you play,” he says. “Tickets aren’t cheap.”
Harper also suffers, and benefits, from his association with Boras. Baseball’s most polarizing agent exasperates general managers with his demands—and his propensity to go over their heads and appeal straight to ownership—whereas Machado’s agent, Dan Lozano, is generally considered more pleasant to deal with. But Boras runs a corporation. “Scott won’t let Harper get lazy,” says another NL official. Boras’s players often work out together in the offseason, and at points Boras is in touch with them every day with thoughts about how they can improve their performance.
Some officials point to Machado’s positional edge, with his ability to play shortstop, but others say he scares them there. “I don’t sign him unless he’s at third,” says one NL executive. An AL official believes Machado has another two or three years at short, followed by a battle over a move to his left. Still, he has been so historically good at third base that the same official picked him over Harper.
For better or for worse, “you know what you’re gonna get,” with Machado, says one NL executive, who chose him. And that, ironically, seems to be the main difference: Almost everyone surveyed agrees that the more volatile person is the more consistent player.
Over a hypothetical 10-year deal, “Manny will give you eight All-Star seasons and one MVP,” says an NL official, who initially went with Machado before talking himself to the other side. “Harper will give you three MVPs, five All-Stars and two ‘what the hell happened there’ seasons.”
For the most part, teams that value upside lean toward Harper. Teams that prize ability to stay on the field prefer Machado. Those arguments both make sense. But it’s a lot of money. You’d like to be sure.