TAMPA, Fla. -- Bryce Harper and Manny Machado will play in different cities over the next 20 months, for different teams, playing different positions in different leagues. But all the while, they will be competing against each other directly, just as if they were faced off in a one-on-one pickup game for positioning in the free-agent market of 2018.
Whether they are cognizant of the clash or not, they will be vying for the attention of baseball evaluators who have to formulate contract offers and the billionaires who employ those baseball executives. A Machado web gem has the potential to carve out emotional space in the imagination of potential suitors, and a Harper home run could become embedded in the mind of an executive dreaming of a franchise star.
Both Baltimore Orioles third baseman Machado and Washington Nationals right fielder Harper will be 26 years old when they hit the free-agent market, with their best years theoretically ahead of them. And it seems possible that the bidding for each will approach or exceed $400 million, even in an era of increased fiscal discipline. Because not only will the two superstars represent significant lineup and defensive upgrades for their respective employers in 2019, but both will be cast as headliner talents who can rebrand a franchise.
For example: The New York Yankees will have carved out payroll flexibility by the time the Harper/Machado sweepstakes begin. Almost a century after their acquisition of Babe Ruth, Harper would be a slugger whose swing and personality seems perfectly suited to their ballpark and market. The Philadelphia Phillies have more payroll flexibility than any MLB team now, and the signing of Machado would signal the start of a new era.
But it seems unlikely that any team would be willing to absorb the enormous cost of both, so for big-spending teams like the Yankees, Phillies, Chicago Cubs, Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers, Los Angeles Angels, San Francisco Giants and perhaps others, evaluators will address this question over the 2017 and 2018 seasons: Would you rather target Harper or Machado?
That question was posed to some evaluators. Here is a first sample of the responses:
Evaluator 1: "Close call. Machado would be my vote. His durability has been a surprise after what was in his medicals as an evaluator."
Side note: Machado has had surgery to fix existing problems in both knees, and over the past two years, he has missed a total of five games -- four of those after he was suspended for an on-field fight with Yordano Ventura.
Evaluator 2: "Machado. I prefer consistently elite over the higher impact but more volatile player. Machado impacts the game in virtually every area and most likely ages better and performs more balanced over the life of the mega-contract they both get. Harper's offensive numbers might wow everyone more any given year, but Machado has everything I would want in a franchise player."
Evaluator 3: "Two amazing players, obviously. I've got a slight preference for Machado, but very close. Not as much bat as Bryce, but not terribly far off, and he's got much better defensive value and a cleaner recent health history. Both have appetite to be stars.
"Bryce has had the best single season, in 2015, but Manny has been consistently great over the last two years. A lot of it comes down to how much you want to excuse Bryce's 2016 season. The more you excuse, the easier it is to have him on top of Manny. But I don't want to provide an excuse for one guy and not the other, so it's Manny for me.
"If Manny had been playing shortstop the last few years, which he's very capable of doing, do we still ask the question of Manny vs. Bryce? Or would that separate Manny?"
Evaluator 4: "Harper, because he's slightly younger and has just a higher overall offensive upside. He's been an MVP and dealt with the pressure. I think he's the better overall player."
Evaluator 5: "Not really all that close for me. Machado has much better swing and approach. He hits good pitching; the other guy does not. Machado is a better defender at a position that is tougher to find. Harper has swing flaws that have been exposed in every year except 2015, and I am not buying he was injured last year."
Evaluator 6: "My Cliff Note answer would be Machado."
Evaluator 7: "Both are uber-talented, but Manny's skills, where he could easily be one of the top three shortstops in our game, but instead, for now, is one of the top third basemen in the game. Absolutely nothing gets past him, and for my money he's a better hitter. Harper gets credit and gets a huge part of his reputation for how far he hits home runs, but they still only count for one run. Machado is an entire field hitter who hits to the situation. He can hammer majestic homers, but can also do other things to help a team win."
It's an evolving conversation that will continue throughout this season and next year, as some teams align their dollars to pursue one of the game's two best players.
The Kemp effect on Freddie Freeman
When Atlanta Braves general manager John Coppolella informed Freddie Freeman about the trade for Matt Kemp last summer, Freeman grinned happily. The Kemp trade signaled that after a few years of trading away Freeman's best and most experienced teammates, from Jason Heyward to Craig Kimbrel, the franchise had seemingly reached the crossroads at which they started to add.
But maybe Freeman also had a sense that the addition of Kemp would have a direct impact on the first baseman's performance, because the presence of Kemp would force opposing pitchers, catchers and managers to deal with Freeman, rather than simply work around him.
The difference in Freeman's performance after the Kemp trade transformed the Braves' offense, because the team's best hitter had a chance to see more pitches and be at his best. Earlier in the year, managers Fredi Gonzalez and Brian Snitker had struggled to find somebody who could be a threat in the cleanup spot.
Here are Freeman's numbers in games in which hitters other than Kemp batted cleanup last season, as dug out by Sarah Langs of ESPN Stats & Information, with help from the Elias Sports Bureau:
In the 57 games in which Adonis Garcia, Jeff Francoeur, Tyler Flowers, Kelly Johnson or A.J. Pierzynski batted cleanup, Freeman drove in 15 runs. It was as if Freeman was a completely different hitter when Kemp batted behind him. In those 52 games, Freeman's numbers: 63-for-189 (.333), .661 slugging percentage, .453 OBP, 15 HRs, 47 RBIs.
Orioles' Alvarez ahead of curve in outfield
Orioles manager Buck Showalter mentioned the idea of Pedro Alvarez playing in the outfield during the 2016 season, and Alvarez's agent, Scott Boras, also spoke to Alvarez about it. But Alvarez says with a smile that he feels like he was ahead of both of them. Early in his time with the Pittsburgh Pirates, when he was a third baseman, Alvarez embraced the idea of getting in his conditioning during early batting practice. Every few days, he would spend time chasing line drives around the outfield, a practice he continued even after he left the Pirates.
In those hours of shagging flies, Alvarez got a feel for how balls look coming off the bat, curling away from him toward the foul lines when the hitter would hook the ball, or how they might carry more than expected when the ball is hit directly at him. All of that collected information will help him now, as he continues to make starts in the outfield -- as he did Saturday, when he started in right field against the Yankees.
The Orioles were heavy in corner-outfield and designated hitter types even before re-signing Alvarez, who played 87 games at DH and 12 others at third base in 2016. Mark Trumbo played a lot of right field last year, and when Baltimore re-signed him, the thought in the organization was that Trumbo would get more time at DH this year, with Hyun Soo Kim and newly acquired Seth Smith starting in left and right field against right-handed pitchers.
But as spring training began, Alvarez was still unsigned, and the Orioles were surprised that nobody had signed him, even as his price tag dropped. Alvarez was effective for Baltimore against right-handed pitching last year, posting an .848 OPS (with 18 doubles and 21 homers in 334 at-bats), so the Orioles landed him on a minor-league deal, with a base salary of $2 million. It's possible that he starts the year with Triple-A Norfolk, as he continues to work on his defense at a position that is new to him -- sort of.
"As baseball players, we kind of all know what it takes to play each position," Alvarez said, sitting in the visitors' dugout at the Yankees' facility. "I can sit here and say, 'as a right fielder, you've got to do this on this play. As a catcher, you need to be here on this throw.’ We all know that it's about that [instinct] becoming second nature -- getting reps in, seeing the ball off the bat, knowing hitters. Those are things that only come with time and [game] experience, and experience is the only thing you can't practice and you can't replicate. For me, that's going to be the biggest challenge."
Chatter around the league
There is increasing concern in the San Francisco Giants' camp over the play of center fielder Denard Span this spring. The 33-year-old is 4-for-28 and evaluators don't think he's moving well yet. Hunter Pence hasn't hit well, either. He's 4-for-29.
The Tampa Bay Rays are greatly encouraged by the improvement they have seen in Alex Cobb this spring, even though Cobb is still refining his changeup. The sense among the Tampa Bay players is that the rotation -- led by Chris Archer -- is bound to be better than it was at the outset of last year, and that the team will be more competitive, more dangerous right off the starting line. Tampa Bay will be tested immediately: They play 14 games in the first 16 days of the season against the Yankees, Blue Jays and Red Sox.
The perception of the Houston Astros from other teams is that even midway through spring training, they'd still pay well for a front-line starting pitcher -- but probably not the high price tag that the Chicago White Sox have placed on Jose Quintana.
Evaluators with other teams believe the Tigers will be aggressive in deciding whether to move tradable players like Ian Kinsler and J.D. Martinez, so a competitive start to the season could be vitally important for Detroit.
Clay Buchholz's velocity was down early in spring training but picked up in his most recent start against the Yankees.
The Toronto Blue Jays are said to be looking for an outfielder.
Derek Norris was released last week by the Nationals, and he will have to overcome a reputation in some parts of the industry of sometimes clashing with pitchers.
Baseball Tonight Podcast
Monday: Pirates GM Neal Huntington on the team’s message to the pitching staff this spring and Andrew McCutchen’s handling of trade rumors; Jerry Crasnick on the WBC; and graphic artist Todd Radom continues his countdown of the best baseball logos of all time.
Wednesday: Nolan Ryan on the best compliment he ever got from a hitter, the Hall of Famer he liked to hang out with in Cooperstown and using the fear he saw in batters; Bud Black on the Rockies’ difficult week and the emergence of Jon Gray; and Jayson Stark on the emotional journey of Giancarlo Stanton and why others think he’ll win the MVP.
Thursday: Xander Bogaerts goes rapid-fire; Tim Kurkjian on some questions developing around some big-name pitchers, including Zack Greinke; Keith Law about the improvements in Taijuan Walker; and Steve Gelbs of SNY on Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, Yoenis Cespedes and Tim Tebow.
Friday: Karl Ravech and Justin Havens debate the question of Harper or Machado. Also: Marlins team president Mike Hill on Jose Fernandez, Giancarlo Stanton and one of baseball’s most underrated players; Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post on Max Scherzer’s progress and Harper’s exceptional spring performance.
And today will be better than yesterday.