Phillies Nuggets with Tim Kelly

Harper, Hernandez and Machado: 3 takeaways from the start of hot stove season



Bryce Harper and Manny Machado are both free-agents. (Johnmaxmena2 and Ian D’Andrea/Wikimedia Commons)

It’s been over 10 days since players have become eligible to sign free-agent contracts with new teams. At last week’s general manager’s meetings, there were perhaps more substantive trade and free-agent rumors than we usually here this early in the offseason. It sets the stage for next month’s MLB Winter Meetings, a five-day stretch that could see some of the most impactful trades and signings in major league baseball history.

While we’re in the midst of the calm before the storm, here’s a look a three takeaways from the early part of a crucial offseason for the Philadelphia Phillies.

1. Bryce Harper Could Sign at the December Winter Meetings…or Much Later

During last week’s general manager’s meetings, Chelsea Janes and Barry Svrluga of The Washington Post reported that Bryce Harper declined a 10-year/$300 million contract offer from the Washington Nationals on the final day of the 2018 regular season. The deal was probably never meant to be the Nationals final offer – it didn’t include a no-trade clause, and despite giving him an average annual value of $30 million per season, it was probably short in terms of total dollars in the deal as well. But it does illuminate the struggles that the Nationals may have in retaining their franchise icon.

It also doesn’t appear that many of the major market teams will be serious players for Harper.

Alex Pavlovic of NBC Sports Bay Area says that rumors of the San Francisco Giants being interested in Harper has caused “shock” in the organization, whose interest has apparently been overstated. That could change with Farhan Zaidi, the former Los Angeles Dodgers general manager, inserted as president of baseball operations, but there’s no indication to this point that it will. Despite speculation about his willingness to play first base, a source told ESPN‘s Buster Olney that Harper “isn’t going to be a Yankee.” With Yu Darvish, Jason Heyward and Tyler Chatwood set to make over $50 million combined in 2019, the Chicago Cubs may not be in position to sign Harper. The Dodgers already have six players under contract for 2019 that are capable of being starting outfielders. The Boston Red Sox, the reigning World Series champions, already have an elite outfield trio of Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Andrew Benintendi.

Sure, it appears the Chicago White Sox could be competitive for Harper, but Bob Nightengale of USA Today was among those to report last week that the Phillies are viewed as the favorites to ultimately land the 2015 National League MVP. It’s long been expected that Harper will sign his megadeal at the MLB Winter Meetings, which will take place Dec. 9-13 in his hometown of Las Vegas. And that may happen, but as I wrote last week, unless there’s a team willing to bid against themselves, Harper and agent Scott Boras will have to come down quite a bit from their reported desire for a 13 or 14-year contract.

Last year, Jake Arrieta, a Boras client, ultimately came down from his desire for a six or seven-year deal, but it took until Spring Training for Arrieta to reach a three-year/$75 million contract with the Phillies. Despite it always being clear that J.D. Martinez would ultimately land with the Red Sox last offseason, it took until Feb. 26 for Martinez to sign a five-year/$110 million deal. While Arrieta’s deal features two club options after the guaranteed first three years, Martinez can opt-out and become a free-agent after 2019. He can do the same thing after 2020. And 2021. So even when Boras clients don’t get their best-case scenario contracts, they still tend to be taken care of quite a bit.

Even once Harper and Boras are likely talked down to a deal around 10 years – assuming that happens and a team like the Phillies doesn’t get desperate enough to issue a 13-year deal – there will be a lot to sort through. There’s a good chance Harper will be given some sort of a no-trade clause, perhaps a full one. Harper’s next contract will almost certainly include an opt-out in his early 30s, like the one Alex Rodriguez, another Boras client, had that allowed him to opt-out after an MVP season at age-31. That may not be the only opt-out included in what is likely to be a complicated pact.

So yes, it would be a storybook ending for Harper to sign one of the largest contracts in sports history in his hometown. Although, Harper is only 26, so a desire to get the best deal now, while insuring he has a chance to sign another megadeal down the road, could outweigh a cool narrative, dragging the Harper sweepstakes into 2019.

2. Manny Machado’s Postseason Antics Appear to Have Cost Him

If you need an idea of how different playing in Baltimore and Los Angeles are, here’s a fun exercise: ask yourself how many times Manny Machado made national headlines for a negative reason during his six-and-a-half seasons in Baltimore. It’s hard to think of one occasion that happened, despite Machado helping the Orioles to reach the postseason three times and making four All-Star Game appearances. Then ask yourself how many times Machado made national headlines for a negative reason during his three-and-half months with the Dodgers. You would probably need two hands.

As Machado told The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal during his now-infamous “Johnny Hustle” interview: “I’m in The Show for seven years, I’ve done the same thing for seven years, I’ve been the same player.” What changed was that he was traded to one of the sport’s most historically relevant franchises just months before one of the most anticipated free-agent classes in baseball history came to be. And despite helping the Dodgers to reach their second consecutive World Series, it appears that Machado may have cost himself some serious money.

On the latest At The Yard Podcast, NBC Sports Philadelphia‘s Jim Salisbury said this to Corey Seidman on the Phillies interest in Machado: “If you had asked me that question on Oct. 1, ‘Who will the Phillies prioritize, Manny Machado or Bryce Harper?,’ I think I would have said Machado. I see him as being a really good baseball fit for the Phillies, because he can play third base and shortstop, two really important positions and two positions where the Phillies have needs. But yeah, the month of October did not go well for him – it included a comment about not hustling and not being ‘Johnny Hustle.’ It was noticed at Citizens Bank Park – it was noticed all over baseball. And spending a few days at the general manager’s meetings, everybody noticed it, it was a really big thing to talk about out here. And I think it has affected a lot of teams thinking about Manny and at least complicated teams’ decision-making process – including the Phillies. Now, a month later, I think Harper has moved ahead of him on the Phillies list of priorities.”

Salisbury did note that he believes Machado’s talent could still allow him to thrive in Philadelphia, but also added this: “I think the Phillies are still open-minded on Machado, but in the back of their minds, they still hear that comment. It’s hard not to. So I think they’re probably more lukewarm on him. Let’s say their interest was at a boiling level maybe a month ago, it’s back down to lukewarm.”

That is certainly telling. Prior to the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, the Phillies weren’t willing to include Sixto Sanchez in any trade for Machado. They were even hesitant on some of their young pitching at the major league level, such as Zach Eflin. But MLB.com‘s Jon Morosi did note that the Phillies were willing to part with RHP Adonis Medina, their No. 2 overall pitching prospect, for Machado. While such a trade would have only guaranteed them a few months with Machado, they likely would have been auditioning to retain his services past 2018. The Phillies, of course, didn’t acquire Machado, and despite a slew of transactions in July and August, limped to the finish line, going 27-40 after the All-Star Break. Machado, meanwhile, auditioned for the Phillies (and other potential suitors) in Los Angeles, and despite the finest offensive season of his career, he became a public relations nightmare in the postseason.

Phillies general manager Matt Klentak joined Joe DeCamara and Jon Ritchie on SportsRadio 94 WIP earlier this month and while he did go out of his way to remind the baseball world how talented of a player Machado is, he acknowledged that perception does matter. He’s used that phrase multiple times since the 2018 season concluded. This is a defining offseason for Klentak and perhaps the most important in the history of the Phillies organization. If the Phillies were slightly more interested in Machado than Harper in the not-so-distant past, the postseason may have changed that, which is ironic considering it was Machado, not Harper, who helped his team reach the playoffs and the World Series. But it may ultimately be Harper, not Machado, who the Phillies choose to award a franchise-altering contract, likely taking the perceived No. 1 suitor for Machado out of the picture for his services.

3. Cesar Hernandez May be a Phillie in 2019

Let’s say the Phillies don’t ultimately sign Manny Machado to play shortstop. His signing would create a domino effect of transactions. Not signing him would have an effect as well.

Despite Rosenthal saying that the Phillies are “shopping the hell” out of Carlos Santana, the guess here is that when fly ball pitchers are on the mound for the Phillies in 2019, Santana will be at third base, allowing Rhys Hoskins to slide back to his natural position of first and the Phillies to upgrade in left field on days where they really need it. On days where Santana is at first, someone else will be at third. That someone could be internal – Maikel Franco, J.P. Crawford or Scott Kingery – but it could also require an external addition.

The feeling you are left with is that the Phillies, one way or another, will add to their infield this offseason. That doesn’t mean that someone like Cesar Hernandez won’t be traded this offseason, should a team make an offer that satisfies the Phillies. But Salisbury reported late last week that the Phillies won’t trade Hernandez just for the sake of doing so. He’s under team control for two more seasons and coming off of a down season, this may not be the best time to trade the 28-year-old.

Without adding Machado to play shortstop, someone will have to play shortstop for the Phillies in 2019. Crawford, the team’s Opening Day starter at the position in 2018, hasn’t played enough for the Phillies to give up on him. But between a .214 batting average in 187 games and two disabled list stints in 2018, it would seem irresponsible for the Phillies to enter 2019 with Crawford as their starter at shortstop.

That brings the aforementioned Kingery back into the picture. Both Gabe Kapler and president Andy MacPhail went out of their way to praise Kingery’s evolution at shortstop at the conclusion of the season. It makes you think there’s a very real chance he’s back at the position on a full-time basis in 2019.

On one hand, Kingery’s natural position is second base. On the other hand, even in a season where Hernandez saw his batting average drip from .294 – a mark he hit at in 2016 and 2017 – to .253, he still posted career-highs in walks, home runs and RBIs. Kingery, who the Phillies awarded a six-year contract with multiple club options last Spring Training, slashed .226/.267/.338 with a -19.3 offensive WAR, the fifth worst mark in baseball in 2018. His minor league track record suggests he’s likely to be a better overall player than Hernandez. His one season in the majors suggests that it may be a good idea to hold onto Hernandez until Kingery proves that to be the case.

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