We are roughly four weeks away from pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training camps across Arizona and Florida, and still generational talents Manny Machado and Bryce Harper remain free agents. They'll sign soon enough and be paid handsomely. You don't have to worry about them. But even they have been caught up in the sluggish free agent market.
For most of the winter Machado's market has been more active than Harper's. Machado has visited more teams, as far as we know, and there are more rumblings about him in general. Scott Boras, Harper's agent, is known to take his top clients deep into the offseason. Chances are Boras is waiting for Machado to set the market before getting serious about a deal for Harper.
The White Sox have reportedly offered Machado an eight-year contract, and the fact he hasn't signed it yet tells us he's still looking for more. Either more money or more years, or both. The latest scuttlebutt has a Mystery Team jumping into the Machado bidding:
Machado camp is telling some folks there’s a mystery team in addition to Chisox, Phils. Validity is unknown.— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) January 11, 2019
The Mystery Team makes an appearance or two each offseason, usually when a top free agent is getting closer to making a decision. Truth be told, the whole Mystery Team thing is usually a transparent attempt by agents to create leverage, and crank up the bidding one last time. Do teams ever fall for it? Maybe! I can't remember the last player to sign with a Mystery Team though. Maybe Cliff Lee with the Phillies way back when? That came out of nowhere.
Anyway, Machado reportedly has a Mystery Team pursuing him now. That's when you know you've made it. Who is that Mystery Team? That's what we're here to figure out. The best way to do that is with the process of elimination, so let's start knocking clubs off the prospective Mystery Team list step-by-step.
Step 1: Teams in on Machado
Can't be a Mystery Team if we know you're in on Machado.
The Phillies, White Sox, and Yankees are out. They are publicly in on Machado to varying degrees. We still have 27 possible Mystery Teams.
Step 2: Teams that can't afford him
I mean, every team can afford Machado. League revenues are at an all-time high. Some teams are just less inclined to spend big on a free agent. We're eliminating the following teams in Step 2: Athletics, Indians, Marlins, Orioles, Pirates, Rays, Reds, Royals, Twins. A case can be made the Indians should sign Machado. Put Machado at third, Jose Ramirez at second, and Jason Kipnis in the outfield. Their window to win is as open as it's going to get. Cleveland has reduced payroll this offseason though, and I don't get the sense it was so they could afford Machado.
The Pirates are another team you could argue should be in on Machado. They're good enough as is to challenge for a postseason spot in 2019. The NL Central? Eh, maybe, if some things break their way. Put Machado on their roster -- their current projected shortstop is career utility man Erik Gonzalez -- and they are firmly in the wild card mix. Pittsburgh has given us no reason to believe they'll spend money though. They salary dumped Ivan Nova and replaced him Jordan Lyles, remember. We're down to 18 possible Mystery Teams.
Step 3: Teams that can afford Machado but are rebuilding
The White Sox could be lumped into this group, except they are making efforts to improve. Their young prospects are starting to arrive and they've added low-cost veterans (Nova, Jon Jay, Yonder Alonso) to help push the team in the right direction. The clubs we're eliminating in Step 3 are not doing that. They are actively unloading veteran players, or at least ignoring them entirely. Those teams: Blue Jays, Diamondbacks, Mariners, Rangers, Tigers.
Toronto, to me, is a team that absolutely should be in Machado but isn't. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette figure to arrive at some point in 2019, and pair those two with Machado, and you have the foundation of a devastating offense, which is pretty much a requirement for contending in the AL East nowadays. The Blue Jays have the money -- they are owned by Rogers Communications, which is like Verizon and AT&T put together -- and there is upward of seven million people in the greater Toronto area. Rogers Centre is packed when the Blue Jays are good. Alas, they seem uninterested in Machado. We now have 13 potential Mystery Teams.
Step 4: Contenders that don't need him
This step sounds dumb because you make room for a player of Machado's caliber. Rearrange the lineup, change some positions, whatever. Machado makes you a lot better, and if you have a chance to get him, you should. That isn't the reality though. These contenders are out:
- Astros: Jose Altuve at second, Carlos Correa at short, Alex Bregman at third. Houston is probably the only team in baseball that can make a genuine "we don't have room for Machado" argument.
- Braves: They already committed huge 2019 dollars to Josh Donaldson at third base and their infield is fairly well set. Any large contract from here on out figures to go to an outfielder.
- Dodgers: Corey Seager is returning at shortstop and Justin Turner is locked in at third. They could sign Machado and use one of those guys at second, I suppose. Their recent austerity with regards to the luxury tax makes it unlikely.
- Nationals: If they're going to hand out a mega-contract this winter, it'll go to retaining Bryce Harper. There's no room on the infield now anyway.
- Red Sox: They're already way over the luxury tax threshold and have Xander Bogaerts at short and Rafael Devers at third. Moving Bogaerts to second won't happen with a Dustin Pedroia return still possible.
Knocking another five teams off the list bring us down to eight potential Mystery Teams. Getting warmer!
Step 5: Contenders that have to move people around to make it work
Gosh, the Mets really should be in on Machado or Harper, shouldn't they? At least one of them. They're a New York team, after all. The Mets have already added Robinson Cano and Jed Lowrie to an infield mix that includes Todd Frazier, Amed Rosario, and Jeff McNeil. Signing Machado and trading Rosario for help elsewhere on the roster seems doable. I just can't see the Wilpons signing off on this. The Mets are out.
The Cardinals made their big offseason move when they acquired Paul Goldschmidt. That pushed Matt Carpenter to third and Jedd Gyorko to the bench, with Paul DeJong and Kolten Wong the middle infield tandem. DeJong's a nice player. He shouldn't stand in the way of Machado though. Signing Machado to play short, then cashing DeJong or Wong in as a trade chip is a nice idea that doesn't seem all that likely. St. Louis made their big move already. They're out too.
What about the Cubs? They retained Addison Russell, so they'll have plenty of infielders once he returns from his suspension under the league's domestic violence policy. Chicago could, however, move Kris Bryant to left field, a position he's played plenty over the years. Bryant in left with Machado and Javier Baez on the left side of the infield is a fun little idea, isn't it? The problem here is the Cubs have been crying poor all winter. And, even if they did spend big, it would likely be on Harper. No dice.
The Rockies are another "Harper fits better than Machado" team. If they grant a huge contract to an infielder, it'll go to Nolan Arenado, who is a year away from free agency. Harper in Coors Field would be a fun baseball thing. Would be neat if it happens. Colorado is out on Machado and so are the Giants, who already have several massive contracts on the books and a full infield. They're another "Harper over Machado" team. We're down to three potential Mystery Teams after eliminating the Mets, Cardinals, Cubs, Rockies, and Giants.
Step 6: The contender that needs him but can't afford him
Maybe "needs" is too strong a word here. Clearly though, the Brewers could stand to add Machado to their lineup. They could either install him at shortstop and move Orlando Arcia to second base, or install him at third base and move Travis Shaw to second base. Remember, Milwaukee went after Machado hard at the trade deadline last year. They settled for Jonathan Schoop instead and Schoop was a total bust.
The Brewers could use Machado. All indications are they can not afford him. Yasmani Grandal's pricey one-year contract puts their projected Opening Day payroll at $115.1 million, according to Cot's Baseball Contracts. Here are Milwaukee's Opening Day payrolls the last five years:
- 2018: $90.96 million
- 2017: $63.06 million
- 2016: $63.91 million
- 2015: $104.24 million
- 2014: $103.70 million
The Brewers had the best record in the National League last year when they went to Game 7 of the NLCS, and they've increased payroll going into 2019. That's great. That is exactly how it should be. Milwaukee is already poised to run the largest payroll in franchise history this season and they play in the game's smallest market. Realistically, they might not be able to go much higher with their payroll.
Remember, Machado is looking at something like $30 million per year on his upcoming contract. That would push the Brewers up over $140 million. I just can't see it. Machado is a fit for the roster. Financially, the Brewers appear to be at their limit. They're out and we have two potential Mystery Teams remaining.
Step 7: The team that has to pay Trout soon
The Angels should take every dollar they are considering giving to Machado and instead give it to Mike Trout, who is two years from free agency and has played three postseason games in his seven full MLB seasons. The Halos could absolutely fit Machado on their roster. Machado at third, Andrelton Simmons at shortstop, and Zack Cozart moves to second. See? Nice and easy. That would be the best defensive infield in baseball, hands down.
This offseason has been a great big "we tried" for the Angels and GM Billy Eppler. They've reportedly been "finalists" for several prominent free agents:
#Angels have now been “finalists” for at least 5 FAs they didn’t get: Corbin, Eovaldi, Happ, Ramos, Britton. https://t.co/GdtjP6v4RN— Jeff Fletcher (@JeffFletcherOCR) January 6, 2019
That indicates some level of financial restraint. In a perfect world, the Angels would sign Machado and add him to Trout, and move forward with two of the best players in the world plus the fun as heck Shohei Ohtani. In the real world, retaining Trout has to be the priority. He is the best player on the planet and a homegrown superstar. You don't let him walk. Every dollar the Angels give Machado is a dollar they can not give Trout.
Barring a big -- and unexpected, frankly -- increase in payroll, the Angels aren't going to end up with Machado. I do believe they are a good candidate to be the Mystery Team. A great candidate, really, because they have the infield opening and they've at least attempted to get better this winter, even if they've come up short a bunch of times. It just doesn't seem to be in the cards.
So, with the Angels and 28 other teams ruled out, it means we're down to one possible Mystery Team. Drum roll please ...
The San Diego Padres!
Yes, the Padres. There are several reasons this makes sense. One, they have a tremendous farm system that will begin plugging high-end talent into the major league roster in earnest in 2019. The most efficient way to build a contender is to develop a homegrown core and supplement it with select veterans. Machado qualifies as a select veteran. He'd accelerate the rebuild and give San Diego a lineup cornerstone.
Two, despite all those prospects, the Padres do not have an obvious long-term third baseman. Sure, they could move someone like Fernando Tatis Jr. or Luis Urias to third, but that defeats the purpose. Those two are top-notch middle infielders and they should remain on the middle infield, where they're most valuable. San Diego has had a revolving door at third base since the first time they had Chase Headley. The Wil Myers at third base experiment was well-intentioned but ill-fated, and it is now over.
Wil Myers said he and the Padres collectively decided he will return to the outfield this year. He may still fill in at third base on occasion.— Dennis Lin (@dennistlin) January 12, 2019
And three, the Padres have money. They are currently on target for an $80.3 million Opening Day payroll in 2019, according to Cot's Baseball Contracts. They ran a $108.4 million Opening Day payroll four years ago, when revenues were quite a bit lower than they are today. Add in the forthcoming homegrown core that will remain cheap for several years, and this is the perfect opportunity to spend on a generational type talent like Machado. Those guys don't come around often. Get 'em while you can.
San Diego spent big to add Eric Hosmer last winter, and say what you want about Hosmer's production, but he is very highly respected within baseball. He's a leader and players gravitate toward him. The Padres could sell Machado on joining Hosmer and leading the core group of young players to contention, and living in San Diego. And, also with lots and lots and lots of money, of course. That always helps.
The Padres are the best Mystery Team fit for Machado. They have been angling to do something big all winter as their reported interest in Noah Syndergaard and Corey Kluber suggests. Machado is available for nothing but cash, he plays a position of need, and he'd advance the rebuild considerably. Plus Padres GM A.J. Preller is known to step out and make surprise splashes (see: Hosmer, Eric). All the pieces fit. I hereby declare the Padres the Machado Mystery Team.