Pitchers and catchers report to spring training in one week -- one week! -- and still Manny Machado and Bryce Harper remain unsigned. Two prime-aged superstars are sitting in free agency because, at the all moment, not one of the 30 MLB clubs believe they are worth their asking price. It is beyond silly given how much money is in the game today, but it is what it is.
Harper and Machado are true balance of power players. They can swing a division race or a wild-card race all by themselves. They are that good. Steamer projects Machado as a 5.1 WAR player in 2019 and Harper a 4.9 WAR player. Projections are not predictions, they are an estimate of true talent level, and Steamer sees both as five-win players. That's big impact.
Which teams could most use a five-win player at this point? Well, all of them, but some clubs are closer to contention than others. A rebuilding team may not benefit much from Harper or Machado in 2019, but they are so young (both 26) that they could be part of a contending roster in 2020 or 2021. It's not often players like this hit free agency. Sign 'em while you can.
For 2019 and 2019 only, there are unquestionably some teams that are a Harper or a Machado away from a division title or a postseason berth. Which teams are those? Let's use FanGraphs projected standings to figure it out. Here's a division-by-division look at the teams that could most benefit from adding Harper or Machado to their roster.
- Boston Red Sox: 97-65
- New York Yankees: 96-66 (1 GB)
- Tampa Bay Rays: 85-77 (12 GB)
- Toronto Blue Jays: 77-85 (20 GB)
- Baltimore Orioles: 61-101 (36 GB)
FanGraphs projects the Red Sox and Yankees to have the two best records in baseball and they are essentially dead even. A projected one-win difference in early February is nothing. The AL East looks to be a two-team race, so Harper or Machado wouldn't do much for the Rays, Blue Jays, or Orioles in 2019. Not in the division race, anyway.
The Red Sox and Yankees though? Harper or Machado would equal separation in the standings. It wouldn't hard to fit either on the roster either. Boston could put Harper in right, Mookie Betts in center, and trade Jackie Bradley Jr. for bullpen help. The Yankees could put Harper in left and Brett Gardner on the bench, or Machado at third, Miguel Andujar at DH, and Giancarlo Stanton in left with Gardner on the bench. Harper or Machado going to one of the two AL East powerhouses would alter the division landscape considerably.
- Cleveland Indians: 93-69
- Minnesota Twins: 83-79 (10 GB)
- Kansas City Royals: 70-92 (23 GB)
- Chicago White Sox: 70-92 (23 GB)
- Detroit Tigers: 69-93 (24 GB)
Even as they trimmed payroll this winter, the Indians maintained a significant talent gap over the rest of the AL Central on paper. They could certainly use Harper in the outfield, and Machado at third would push Jose Ramirez to second and Jason Kipnis to the outfield. They can make the roster work. Does Cleveland need one of those two guys to win the division? Are the other four teams a Machado or Harper away from an AL Central title? Nah. For the Indians, adding Harper or Machado would be about putting themselves in better position to beat out the other American League powerhouses in the postseason.
- Houston Astros: 94-68
- Los Angeles Angels: 84-78 (10 GB)
- Oakland Athletics: 81-81 (13 GB)
- Texas Rangers: 74-88 (20 GB)
- Seattle Mariners: 73-89 (21 GB)
The A's gave the 'Stros a run for their money last year but the projections do not love Oakland's rotation and it does not consider the opener strategy, which helps the club cover for a shaky starting staff. The Astros are comfortably better than the other four AL West teams on paper, so much so that Harper or Machado would not change the division outlook. Houston could use Harper and Michael Brantley in left field and at DH, and trade Kyle Tucker for J.T. Realmuto, which would make them even more dangerous than they are right now.
AL Wild Card
- New York Yankees: 96-66 (+11 GB)
- Tampa Bay Rays: 85-77
- Los Angeles Angels: 84-78 (1 GB)
- Minnesota Twins: 83-79 (2 GB)
- Oakland Athletics: 81-81 (4 GB)
This is where Harper and Machado would have the most impact. There are four teams within four games of the second wild-card spot. The Rays, Angels, Twins, and Athletics may not be a Harper or Machado away from the division title, but they look to be a Harper or Machado away from a wild-card spot. Get to the postseason and you have a chance to win the World Series and that's the name of the game. Or at least it was not too long ago. But I digress.
Tampa adding Harper gives them breathing room in the wild-card race. The Halos putting Machado at third and Zack Cozart at second pushes them ahead of Tampa. The Twins and A's would have to get a little creative to fit Machado and Harper into their current roster, but it is doable, and it would be worth it. They're on the postseason bubble and every win they add to the roster gets them that much closer to October. The bubble clubs stand to gain the most by signing Machado or Harper.
- Washington Nationals: 92-70
- New York Mets: 85-77 (7 GB)
- Atlanta Braves: 82-80 (10 GB)
- Philadelphia Phillies: 79-83 (13 GB)
- Miami Marlins: 67-95 (25 GB)
The Nationals have been very active this winter and the result is a projected seven-game lead in the division. Do I think Washington is actually at least seven games better than the other four NL East teams? No. No I do not. But the projections are what they are. The Mets adding Harper or Machado -- why aren't the Mets in on Harper or Machado again? -- would make the NL East race more interesting than the projections expect.
- Chicago Cubs: 88-74
- St. Louis Cardinals: 86-76 (2 GB)
- Cincinnati Reds: 82-80 (6 GB)
- Pittsburgh Pirates: 80-82 (8 GB)
- Milwaukee Brewers: 79-83 (9 GB)
Elephant in the room: Steamer hates the Brewers. Milwaukee led the league with 96 wins a year ago and they're getting dinged hard for their second base hole and lack of proven rotation depth. The projection system does not know manager Craig Counsell is excellent at bullpenning his team to victories. It sees a sketchy rotation and knocks the team accordingly.
Okay, so anyway, no division in baseball is more at the whim of Harper and Machado than the NL Central. The five clubs are bunched fairly close together -- much closer than in the other five divisions -- so a team adding a five-win player would change things considerably. If the Cubbies add Harper, they're the division favorites. If the Cardinals add Machado or Harper, suddenly they're the favorites. If the Reds or Pirates or Brewers add them, they're right in the division title mix.
Personally, I think the Cubs, Cardinals, and Brewers are bunched together at the top of the division with the Reds and Pirates a few games back. And because winning the division is so preferable to settling for a wild-card spot, adding Harper or Machado would be enormously impactful in the NL Central race. Imagine if the Cubs signed Harper and the Cardinals signed Machado? Gosh, that would be fun. Not for the Brewers, Reds, and Pirates, just in general.
- Los Angeles Dodgers: 93-69
- Colorado Rockies: 82-80 (11 GB)
- Arizona Diamondbacks: 79-83 (13 GB)
- San Francisco Giants: 76-86 (16 GB)
- San Diego Padres: 76-86 (16 GB)
Even as the Dodgers clamped down on spending and traded away some of their vaunted depth this winter, they maintained a big lead over the rest of the NL West, at least on paper. Colorado's questionable second base and right field situations, as well as some bullpen concerns, leaves them far back of Los Angeles in the eyes of the projection system. I buy the Dodgers being better than the Rockies, but not 11 games better. Anyway, Harper or Machado would not change the NL West outlook, at least based on the projected standings.
NL Wild Card
- St. Louis Cardinals: 86-76 (+1 GB)
- New York Mets: 85-77
- Atlanta Braves: 82-80 (3 GB)
- Cincinnati Reds: 82-80 (3 GB)
- Colorado Rockies: 82-80 (3 GB)
The National League wild-card race is even tighter than the American League wild-card race. Five teams are within four games of each other for those two wild-card spots. The Cardinals and Reds would benefit from Harper and Machado in the NL Central race and especially so in the wild-card race. The Mets and Braves may not catch the Nationals in the NL East, but man, give them Harper or Machado and they're suddenly wild-card favorites.
To me, the Braves are the National League team that could most use Harper or Machado. They could put Harper in right (Nick Markakis to the bench) or Machado at short (Dansby Swanson to Triple-A), draw that much closer to the Nationals in the NL East, and put themselves ahead of the pack in the wild-card race. Also, imagine Harper at Coors Field? The Rockies could plop him into right field and he might hit 50 homers playing half his games at Coors Field. Harper or Machado would change the NL wild-card situation drastically.
According to projection systems Harper and Machado would have the most impact in the AL East, NL Central, and two wild-card races. The Yankees and Red Sox are neck-and-neck in the AL East, multiple clubs are in close proximity in the NL Central, and the wild-card races are always hectic. A few extra wins here and there would change everything.
Those teams on the postseason bubble stand to gain the most from Harper or Machado. The difference between the postseason and no postseason is huge for fan interest, huge for revenue, and great for the team overall. At a time when so many clubs are quick to commit to a long-term rebuild, the teams that make the decision to get better with Harper or Machado will be positioned that much better to capture postseason glory in 2019.