In November 2017, when baseball free agency ground to an unexpected halt, teams claimed that there was no nefariousness to the industry's sudden sheepishness in signing players. They were simply waiting for Shohei Ohtani to pick his destination and Giancarlo Stanton to be traded to a new one. This never made much sense, but then last winter was so tectonic in its changes to Major League Baseball's economic landscape that the early-winter excuses were long forgotten when the free-agent freeze continued into spring training.
This offseason, in ways big and small, free agency remains imperiled. Fifty players have signed major league contracts since free agency began, and 44 of those deals were for two years or fewer. Although outright tanking is not a significant issue in baseball, lack of competitiveness among more than a dozen teams pollutes the market and is going to leave quality players scrounging for jobs as spring training approaches — especially the longer it takes Manny Machado and Bryce Harper to sign.
Unlike last winter, when the cost of Ohtani was so infinitesimal that even low-revenue teams could afford him and the cost of Stanton so prohibitive that only a few were realistic options, the fortunes of Machado and Harper have a clear and direct consequence for the markets for the next-best free agents. Depending on when and where Machado and Harper sign, the domino effect could unfurl in a number of directions, according to general managers, other officials and agents who spoke with ESPN.
For those so frothing for action that they're reading whom Machado follows on Instagram like it's scripture, know this: The general consensus has not changed. Machado is going to sign first, and perhaps soon, choosing from among the New York Yankees, Philadelphia Phillies and Chicago White Sox. While one cannot rule out a mystery team — agent Dan Lozano is keeping a tight lid on the proceedings, just as he did when the Miami Marlins were among the final bidders on Albert Pujols — Machado's fit among the known interested teams is strong enough not to necessitate a furtive suitor.
Harper has met multiple times with representatives of the Washington Nationals, according to a club source, and the possibility of a return to the place he spent the first seven years of his career persists, despite Nationals owner Mark Lerner's insistence that Washington would not stretch beyond the $300 million offer Harper rejected near season's end. The Phillies and White Sox are the other two teams known to be willing to guarantee Harper the decade-plus-long deal he and Machado, each 26 years old, are seeking. Harper's willingness to wait for a contract he deems suitable is real, according to a source who said he could see Harper's free agency stretching into February.
If either …
1. Bryce Harper or Manny Machado goes that route, he won't be the first to secure a nine-figure deal on the eve of spring training. Yu Darvish, Eric Hosmerand J.D. Martinez each scored $100 million-plus deals in February 2018. Machado and Harper clearly are shooting higher, with $200 million-plus easy, $300 million-plus likely and $400 million-plus an improbable-but-not-impossible proposition.
That is where the cascade effect begins. The secondary and tertiary players see the riches a handful of teams are willing to lavish on Harper and Machado and assume those who miss out on the biggest free agents will pivot to the next-best options. By no means is this airtight logic — as the game increasingly moves to a stars-and-kids system, in which the middle class of players is squeezed, it might further depress salaries for all but the very best — but then logic never has been a central element of hope.
Which is what players such as …
2. A.J. Pollock have as their free agency enters its third month: hope. Hope that what to this point has been a thin market, according to sources, will pick up. Hope that the draft pick compensation attached to them won't prove a significant hindrance. Hope that Harper's and Machado's markets won't linger too long and convince teams that they might panic and take lesser deals.
Pollock, a 31-year-old center fielder, is the third-best position player available, and he would be in a strong position if Harper returned to the Nationals and Machado signed with the Yankees. The best fit clearly is the White Sox, who could use Pollock in center or keep defensive wizard Adam Engel there and shift Pollock to a corner, where he'd pair with soon-to-arrive uber-prospect Eloy Jimenez. Although Philadelphia has a center fielder in Odubel Herrera, he's coming off a disappointing season offensively and defensively, and the Phillies' publicly stated desire to spend cash this winter would have a worthwhile target in Pollock.
Other sensible options aren't altogether likely to pony up significant money on a multiyear term. The Cleveland Indians desperately need an outfielder but have cried poor this winter. The San Francisco Giants, under new president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi, are entering a rebuild that runs counter to signing significant free agents. If the New York Mets signed Pollock, they would need to deal either Brandon Nimmo or Michael Conforto, something they've considered, according to sources, but have no plans to pursue. The Cincinnati Reds showed significant interest in Atlanta Braves center fielder Ender Inciarte, according to sources, and though talks stagnated and eventually they dealt for outfielders Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp, Cincinnati still doesn't have a center fielder.
Three executives this week cautioned that teams are treating Pollock's free agency in similar fashion to that of Lorenzo Cain last winter. The market on Cain was silent until January. Then a number of teams jumped in, hopeful to strike a bargain. By the end, Milwaukee paid $80 million over five years. That might be high for what Pollock ultimately gets — his injury history spooks teams — but it is pre-emptive to believe that the market will completely fall out from under him. For …
3. Yasmani Grandal, on the other hand, the conspiring of an oversaturated catching market, draft-pick compensation and a dreadful postseason has led one executive not previously interested in Grandal to wonder whether he could become this year's version of Mike Moustakas, a player who takes a one-year deal.