When Tom Cudeyro stood outside Citizens Bank Park during his lunch break on Dec. 20, 2018, he thought he may get a chance to meet the next great Phillie. Instead, the union electrician was greeting a future San Diego Padres star, as Manny Machado visited Philadelphia on a free-agent trip that feels more and more like a fever dream with each passing year.
Ultimately, Cudeyro would go on to say that he thought the signing of Bryce Harper to a 13-year/$330 million deal would bring more juice to Citizens Bank Park than if the Phillies had topped the 10-year/$300 million deal that Machado inked with the Padres. He, of course, had no way of knowing that in 2020, cardboard cutouts of fans would be the only representatives of the fanbase at Citizens Bank Park.
It’s crazy to think about, but for all the time we’ve spent discussing Machado in Philadelphia, he’s played in just 10 games in his career at Citizens Bank Park. He didn’t see the Phillies at all in 2020 because of the pandemic-adjusted schedule, and won’t for more than a series or two per season as long as he’s employed by the Padres.
Still, it’s impossible not to keep tabs on Machado – he’s forever linked to Harper. Machado was selected two picks after Harper in the 2010 MLB Draft. He signed his megadeal in free agency 11 days before Harper came to terms with the Phillies. And to the surprise of many, it was Machado who helped the Padres to end a lengthy postseason drought before Harper was able to do that same in Philadelphia.
Machado can opt out of his deal after 2023, allowing him to become a free agent again before his age-31 season. If he doesn’t, though, the four-time All-Star still has eight years remaining on his deal. Harper famously insisted on no opt-out in his deal, meaning through hell or high water, he’ll be a Phillie for 11 more campaigns.
The point is, both are in the very early years of deals that we spent nearly half a decade speculating about. There’s plenty of time for things to change, but here’s how the two have stacked up since signing their historic contracts:
Since the start of the 2019 season, FanGraphs grades Harper as the 25th-most valuable offensive player in baseball. Since joining the Phillies, Harper has slashed .262/.385/.518 with 48 home runs and 147 RBIs. Baseball Reference says that Harper has accumulated 5.2 offensive WAR in his first 215 games with the Phillies. Harper trails only former Phillie Carlos Santana and his one-time Washington Nationals teammate Juan Soto in walks over the last two campaigns.
Meanwhile, Machado grades out as the 32nd most valuable offensive player over the same timespan, per FanGraphs. He’s slashed .269/.344/.494 with 48 home runs and 132 RBIs. Machado slightly trails Harper in offensive WAR over the past two seasons, with Baseball Reference‘s formula pegging him at 5.1. The area where Machado really trails Harper is in terms of walks. While Harper has walked 148 times in two seasons with the Phillies, Machado has walked 91 times, a respectable amount, but a mark that continues the career-long trend of Harper being superior.
Context is of the essence here, though. Machado had a relative down year in his first season with the Padres, as he adjusted to hitting at the hitter-unfriendly Petco Park for his home games. In 2019, Machado slashed just .219/.297/.406 in home games, but remained an elite player on the road, slashing .289/.369/.513. That trend flipped dramatically in 2020, with Machado slashing a staggering .353/.417/.773 in home games.
Machado’s real value at Petco Park probably lies somewhere in between what he’s done in his first two seasons as a Padre, but 2019 – his poorer offensive season – carries more weight because it was a full 162-game season. Machado was the 10th-most valuable offensive player in baseball in 2020, but the season was only 60 games.
At the same time, while Harper graded out as just the 40th-most valuable offensive player in baseball in 2020, he played at least half the season with a back injury that clearly limited how much he was able to produce.
We’ll give Harper a slight edge for offensive value provided in the first two seasons, but it’s close and this story is still very much being written.
While the narrative surrounding Harper and Machado entering their prolonged stints in free agency was that both were just reaching their respective peaks, that doesn’t appear to be the case defensively.
When Machado first broke into the league as third baseman for the Baltimore Orioles, he was one of the best defenders that the game has ever seen. For example, in 2013, his first full season as a major leaguer, Machado posted 27 defensive runs saved. Since the start of the 2017 season, he’s posted 23 total defensive runs saved over a four-season span. That’s not to say that he isn’t still a strong defender – he is – but the unreal range that Machado had in his early 20s has declined as he’s continued to grow.
Machado also forced his way back to what he calls his natural position of shortstop in 2018, his free-agent year. What we learned is that the position he’s truly geared to play is third base. A former Platinum Glove Award winner at third base, Machado posted -13 defensive runs saved in 1,261 innings at shortstop between the Orioles and Los Angeles Dodgers in 2018. The defensive metrics in the 299.0 innings he’s played at shortstop as a Padre aren’t good, but it’s largely irrelevant because with the emergence of Fernando Tatís Jr., he may never see significant time at the position ever again.
Had Machado signed with the Phillies, there was some thought that he would have played shortstop. In fact, when he was in Philadelphia for a series in July of 2018, he said he planned to play shortstop in the future. Had he played that position on a full-time basis, it would have reduced his value.
Harper had his worst season as a defender in his walk year, posting an unsightly -24 defensive runs saved, including -15 in his natural position of right field. There was some thought that wherever he signed, he may need to be moved to first base or DH in relative short order.
While it’s likely that Harper will eventually DH on a regular basis, he had a tremendous first season in Philadelphia in the field. A Gold Glove Award finalist, Harper posted 10 defensive runs saved in 2019, while tying his career-high with 13 outfield assists.
Harper wasn’t nearly as effective in the field in 2020, as he posted -1 defensive runs saved in 384 innings, 370 of which were spent in right field. But while the cannon-armed outfielder had just two outfield assists in 2020, it’s impossible to think that his lower-back injury didn’t affect his ability to play up to his full potential in the outfield. 2019 may prove to be Harper’s best defensive season as a Phillie, but the guess here is he’ll bounce back in the field in 2021.
Still, Harper, much like Ronald Acuña Jr. can for the Atlanta Braves currently, could play both right and center field at a high level in the early seasons of his career. As he’s matured and bulked up, he’s probably lifted his way out of being able to play center field at a high level.
Typically, most players are viewed as in their peak years in their late-20s. In terms of prowess and offensive production, that’s true for many. But Machado and Harper offer pretty clear evidence that your athletic – and therefore, defensive – peak comes in your early 20s. That leads you to believe that the overall outlook on both of these deals will be based more on offensive production, because by the end of each deal, neither figures to be an above-average defender anymore.
It’s far from Harper’s fault, but the Phillies are just 109-113 (.491) in Harper’s two seasons with the team. Depending on how the offseason goes, the roster may actually be worse in 2021. Hence why the Phillies are in the process of searching for Matt Klentak’s replacement.
The Padres went just 70-92 in Machado’s first season with the team, but came of age earlier than expected in 2020, going 37-20, giving them the third-most wins of any team in the sport.
The perception when the two signed was that Harper was coming to Philadelphia for a resurgence. And with 11 years remaining on his deal, that may eventually prove to be the case. But it doesn’t feel that way right now.
Meanwhile, Machado is part of what may very well be one of the most exceptional organizations in the sport this decade. It took some patience, but A.J. Preller has built a potential powerhouse in San Diego. We’ve already mentioned Tatís Jr., but the Padres organization is ripe with young talents, including Mike Clevinger, Dinelson Lamet and Jake Cronenworth. What’s even more exciting in San Diego is that the Padres have what MLB Pipeline ranked as the third-best farm system in the sport, headlined by lefty MacKenzie Gore, the No. 3 overall prospect in baseball.
Harper is on a top-heavy Phillies team, one built to win right now, but, well, not winning right now. Harper, Alec Bohm, Rhys Hoskins, Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler are strong core pieces, but the Phillies could lose J.T. Realmuto and Didi Gregorius this offseason. They had a historically-bad bullpen in 2020. And unlike the Padres, the returns on the farm system aren’t great, with MLB Pipeline calling what technically still includes Bohm and Spencer Howard the 23rd-best system in baseball.
If Machado exercises his right to opt out of his contract after 2023 and leaves in free agency, he would only end up spending five seasons with the team. In that time, though, the Padres may have reached the postseason multiple times and even won a World Series.
The Phillies don’t have to worry about Harper opting out, but they do have to worry about whether they’ll be able to put a contending roster around him in the next few seasons. The flip side of not having an opt out is that while Machado, at most, will be under contract through his age-35 season, the Phillies are locked into a deal with Harper through 2031, his age-38 campaign.
Team success isn’t the best measure of a single individual’s value. Far from it, really. But after two seasons, it feels pretty clear that Machado landed in a more desirable situation than Harper. And while the production the two have put up since 2019 is pretty similar, it’s fair to wonder if Machado’s deal won’t ultimately be seen as the more team-friendly deal.
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