With one, speculative, quote, ESPN’s Buster Olney set the internet ablaze Wednesday morning.
“It would not shock me if when it’s first leaked out through one of Scott’s [Boras] guys in the media, Harper’s deal is going to have the number four in it, “ Olney said on Wednesday’s Baseball Tonight podcast. “I still think the Phillies get him.”
For those into semantics, Olney was not suggesting that the deal could be worth $340 million, or even $374 million. He was opining that with Machado off the board, having received $300 million over 10 years, teams that missed out or chose not to meet his asking-price could become desperate enough to sign Harper for $400 million.
It’s not clear if $400 million for Harper, a six-time All-Star, would come over 10 seasons. That would seem to be an overpay, one the Phillies may be willing to walk away from. The other possibility is that with Machado ultimately signing for 10 years, Harper could get 11 or 12. Part of the advantage to signing Harper, as opposed to even a potential deal with Mike Trout after 2020, is that he’s only 26. A 10-year deal would end when Harper was still only 35, as opposed to approaching his 40s, as most historic contracts have tended to do. Signing Harper for 11 or 12 years would likely lock the Phillies into some extra lean years at the end of the contract.
And for what? There was some thought that the Phillies front-office actually preferred Machado over Harper, though other factors may have come into play. Harper may be seen as a better bet over the course of 10 years, given questions about how Machado’s defensive prowess at third base will age, along with how his approach may change now that he’s signed the biggest deal in North American sports history. Klentak, somewhat controversially, talked about how you have to be willing to walk away at some point, and for the Phillies, that point with Machado was at $300 million.
So are we to believe that Phillies managing partner John Middleton will feel so much public pressure that he’ll give Harper $100 more million than a value that the Phillies weren’t comfortable going to for Machado? That feels like a stretch.
It’s true, Middleton and Klentak could come to be defined now by whether they secure Harper or not. It’s one of the reasons that Middleton’s talk of spending “stupid money” back in November looks more ill-advised by day.
But whether the phrasing was something that was well-received by the public or not, the Phillies weren’t willing to go above their “valuation” on Machado. That, within reason, is how smart organizations operate.
None of this is to say that if the Phillies need to top the $325 million that Giancarlo Stanton received from the Miami Marlins in 2012, they should shy away from doing that. But the idea that the Phillies shouldn’t have a cut-off point is misguided. An extra $70 million when you’re talking about a deal in excess of $325 million already can’t be overlooked. An extra year or two on top of a decade does matter.
And where is the team that’s going to push them to an offer close to $400 million?
The Chicago White Sox put together a competitive offer for Machado, one that guaranteed him $250 million over eight seasons, with vesting options for two additional seasons that USA Today’s Bob Nightengale says could have made the deal worth $320 million total. Machado, a four-time All-Star, instead took the guaranteed $300 million across a decade.
The White Sox didn’t wake up Wednesday with a plan to spend even more on Harper. In fact, Nightengale says they are altogether out of the picture in the Harper sweepstakes.
MLB Network’s Jon Heyman says that the San Francisco Giants are “trying hard” on Harper, but that the organization remains pessimistic overall about their chances to land the former National League MVP. Remember, just two days ago, Andrew Baggarly, who covers the Giants for The Athletic, assessed that the Giants chances to land Harper had gone down to two percent, a decrease from an already less-than-likely 20 percent. Maybe the Giants will get a little more aggressive in terms of years, but the idea that they are going to push the Phillies past 10 years doesn’t check out.
The only team left is the Washington Nationals, who have employed Harper for the first seven seasons of his career. There still is a sense that they could make a competitive offer at the 11th hour, one that allows Harper to return to D.C. But as the speculated price for a Harper deal rises, that becomes less and less likely. Even without Harper, the Nationals have just shy of $160 million in payroll commitments in 2019.
After Harper didn’t agree to a 10-year/$300 million contract in September, the Nationals allocated their money elsewhere, signing All-Star LHP Patrick Corbin to a six-year/$140 million deal. Star third baseman Anthony Rendon can become a free-agent after 2019. Max Scherzer will make over $37 million in 2019, the fifth year of a seven-year free-agent deal. Stephen Strasburg is due $35 million in the third year of a seven-year deal of his own. And that says nothing of how much the salary of 20-year-old star Juan Soto – who homered 22 times in 414 at-bats in his rookie season – will rise as he gets into his arbitration years.
As noted in one of the latest editions of Phillies Nuggets, the Nationals are in a strange position where they could lose a player that at times has been a superstar in Harper, and not take a step back in terms of team success. They possess one of the sport’s best rotations and their outfield even with Harper is deep, with Soto leading a group that also includes Adam Eaton, baseballs No. 4 overall prospect Victor Robles and Michael A. Taylor.
It’s not impossible, but it feels pretty unlikely from here that the Nationals ownership, even if they may be motivated to do so, will be able to get close enough to the Phillies final offer to retain Harper. Also worth noting, Heyman mentioned earlier this week that it’s not true that the Nationals will get the right of refusal to match any deal Harper may sign elsewhere.
So in many senses, the world will continue to wait. The Phillies, by all accounts, appear to remain the favorite to sign Harper. Yes, there is an immense amount of pressure on Middleton and Klentak to sign Harper, but not so much that it would make sense to spend an extra $70-$100 million over the runner-up to make sure that happens. But we’ll see in an offseason where Middleton led by making what could go down as one of the most infamous quotes in a city with a rich history of infamous sports quotes if Scott Boras is able to make Middleton desperate enough to do just that.
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