After a tedious offseason, we are nearing the end of free agency. Manny Machado reportedly with the San Diego Padres worth $300 million on Tuesday, becoming the first of the two big free-agent dominoes to fall. Bryce Harper, meanwhile, was rumored on Sunday to be gaining momentum toward a deal with a team suspected to be the Philadelphia Phillies.
Those details surrounding Harper could change -- nothing is done until it's done … except for one thing. Throughout the offseason, the expectation has been that Harper will receive a bigger payday than Machado.
This strikes us as odd. A couple months back, we outlined why Machado is the better player, in our estimation (reasons include his defense, durability and the fact Machado outhit Harper in 2018). By that logic, the greater windfall should go Machado's way -- so, what's up? We brainstormed three possible variables that explain why Harper will net the bigger deal. Here are they, presented in no particular order.
1. The Boras factor
Harper and Machado each have well-regarded representation: Machado employs Dan Lozano and Harper retains Scott Boras, arguably the best-known agent in the sports industry.
There's no reason to think either agent has mishandled negotiations or anything of that nature. But it probably is fair to think that Boras is the more flashy salesperson. Remember, Boras is the best-known agent in part because of his binders -- collections of research and statistical analysis that tend to reveal why this or that Boras client is comparable to this or that legend.
Boras is known for his eagerness to go above a general manager and cut a deal directly with ownership. It stands to reason the Harper talks are of the magnitude that a club owner could see fit to handle the talks themselves. Such thinking plays into Boras' hands -- and could explain at least part of the expected disparity. Boras also is known for waiting out the market in order to get a bigger deal for his client. The expectation after Machado's signing is.
Harper probably gives a team more off-field upside than Machado does. It's Harper who was getting major ink as a teenager. It's Harper who is on the cover of the league-sanctioned video game. It's Harper who has one million Twitter followers. And so on. We're going to stop there because you get the point: Harper is bigger than baseball, or whatever.
None of this stuff matters on the field, but Harper seems like he could pack a bigger punch when it comes to compelling advertising and moving merchandise. That counts for something.
It also counts for something -- though not much in our book -- that Machado said during October he's "not Johnny Hustle" and made a few highly questionable decisions as it pertained to running hard and/or stepping on players. Granted, Harper didn't do anything in the postseason because he wasn't there, but signing Machado is inviting potential headache the next time he doesn't run out an error on a ball that's an automatic out 99 percent of the time.
This is probably the key area.The argument for Machado being the better player is that he's a more consistent performer with a higher floor -- in part because he plays a premium defensive position. It's why he has four of the top five seasons between the two when judged by WAR.
Yet Harper possesses the top season by WAR (his 10-win 2015), as well as almost all of the best offensive efforts. Per OPS+, Harper has four of the top five offensive seasons, including the best overall and two of the top three. If teams are, for whatever reason, not sold on Machado's defense, think Harper's is better than the public metrics do, or just aren't valuing defense as much, then it makes sense that they'd be sweeter on Harper than we are. The same is true if teams believe Harper is more likely to return to that 10-win status than we are.
After all, viewed from the right perspective, Harper has a chance to be more than a very good player (a la Machado) -- he has the potential to be a cash-printing face-of-the-league type. Some, presumably including Harper's agent, would say he already is that. We'll find out soon enough if Harper's next employer agrees.