Passan: Why the baseball world is waiting on Manny and Bryce

In his debut ESPN column, Jeff Passan breaks down the status of this winter's superstar duo and explains why the need for those two big dominoes to fall is keeping other free agents from finding homes. Kyodo/AP Images

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 Hosmer and 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.

It remains unlikely but not out of the question, according to sources. With a surfeit of inventory -- Martin Maldonado, Evan Gattis, Devin Mesoraco, Matt Wieters, Nick Hundley and Caleb Joseph in the free-agent market; Francisco Cervelli, Russell Martin, Kevin Plawecki, Travis d'Arnaud and the prize of prizes, J.T. Realmuto, via trade -- and not nearly as many teams with the need for a No. 1 catcher, the 30-year-old Grandal could become an option for Cleveland or Oakland.

While a four-year, $60 million offer from the Mets reported by the Los Angeles Times is characterized by sources on both sides as more of a discussion and never officially presented, Grandal did not push to complete a deal with New York. His peers are beginning to scramble, lest they be the ones left with minor league deals. Grandal, meanwhile, is staying patient, believing a catcher with his skills and performance will draw requisite interest. It's the same play being used by ...

4. DJ LeMahieu as he navigates a market every bit as crowded as the one for catching. With only a handful of second-base spots open, LeMahieu stands jobless alongside Brian Dozier, Jed Lowrie, Josh Harrison and Asdrubal Cabrera. Utilityman Marwin Gonzalez, who can play second, is in the mix, too, and three shortstops by trade -- Jose Iglesias, Freddy Galvis and Adeiny Hechavarria -- round out the major-league-worthy middle-infield free-agent class.

Whether all of them will wind up with major league deals is unclear. None is panicking, though each recognizes that every negotiation finds a stalemate in the same place: When the player pushes for what he believes is a fair deal, the team can claim to have someone just as good at a lower price. It's becoming a game of chicken.

One possibility to jolt it from that: the increased conversations that will take place this week. The industry didn't entirely shut down between Christmas and New Year's Day, but it took something of a pause. With the Jan. 11 deadline for the sides to avoid arbitration, the number of conversations will pick up significantly, particularly since all 30 teams this year are adopting the so-called file-and-trial approach to arbitration. In past years, teams and players would exchange numbers at the deadline, then keep talking before the arbitration case in hopes of settling on a mutually agreeable salary. Now every team takes a hard line: Either we agree on a number by the deadline, or we're going to what's often an uncomfortable trial.

The acrimony of pre-deadline discussions might not be the best place to hash out a free-agent contract, yet the parties, for all their disagreements, still realize that good players -- and LeMahieu, Dozier, Lowrie, Harrison, Cabrera and particularly Gonzalez qualify -- warrant major league jobs. Sometimes the market just makes that a trying endeavor. It's also well capable of helping those who play it right, and now that the starting-pitching market for free agency is beginning to resemble a big-box store after Black Friday ...

5. Dallas Keuchel could find himself at a significant advantage. Most of the desirable merchandise is long gone, with only one expensive ware alongside the tchotchkes left on the shelves.

Keuchel, who turned 31 on Tuesday, is not without warts. Teams are wary of his arm holding up long term. His lack of strikeouts does not typically portend well into a pitcher's 30s. At the same time, he has demonstrable skills, notably his propensity to generate ground balls. According to ESPN Stats & Information's Sarah Langs, Keuchel in 2018 induced 426 batted balls with a 94 mph or lower exit velocity, as measured by Statcast, the most in the majors.

Whether that's enough for a $100 million-plus deal, which at the outset of the winter was believed to be the asking price, is murky. A number of teams entered this offseason looking to upgrade their starting rotations, and the remaining free agents beyond Keuchel include Wade Miley, Gio Gonzalez, Ervin Santana, Clay Buchholz, Jeremy Hellickson, Derek Holland, Brett Anderson and Edwin Jackson, who, to give a sense of the market, has sought at least $6 million on a one-year deal.

If the starting-pitching trade market were more robust, the free agents might find themselves in trouble. And yet as ...

6. Marcus Stroman illustrates, the trade market isn't exactly bustling right now. Multiple sources said the prospects of the Toronto Blue Jays moving Stroman have decreased in recent weeks. Interested teams simply aren't offering packages commensurate with what the Blue Jays believe Stroman's value to be, basing it off the expectation that he'll return to 2017 form after a disastrous 2018. While his peripherals were far better than his 5.54 ERA -- Stroman, a ground ball artist, played in front of one of the worst defensive infields in baseball -- the step back left him in a place no team wants when taking offers on a player: near his nadir in value.

Still, all it takes is a team tired of free-agent options to pay 2017 prices for Stroman. The Arizona Diamondbacks have taken the same tack, according to teams that have inquired about left-hander Robbie Ray: They're not looking to move him, but if a team wants to put together a package better than what the Seattle Mariners got from the New York Yankees for James Paxton, they're more than welcome to try.

In the nominally available category are the Mets' Noah Syndergaard and Cleveland's Trevor Bauer and Corey Kluber. The Mets understand that their chances of contention in 2019 are far greater with Syndergaard than without, and the Indians' shedding of payroll has made their enthusiasm for keeping Bauer and Kluber far greater, according to executives who have spoken with the Indians about possible deals for their co-aces.

Among those who are clearly available ...

7. Sonny Gray might head the list. The number of trade iterations around Gray this winter has been staggering. There was traction, at one point, on a three-way deal among the Yankees, Rangers and Braves that would have sent Gray to Atlanta, a prospect to Texas and infielder Jurickson Profar to New York. The Rangers wound up shipping Profar to Oakland in another three-way deal with the Tampa Bay Rays.

Gray is a classic change-of-scenery case. With more is Sarah Langs:

A different venue seems to be exactly what Gray needs, at least based on his pitching results. In his time with the Yankees, he has a 6.55 ERA in 88 innings pitched at home, with a 1.70 WHIP, .290 opponents' batting average and .885 opponents' OPS. But in 107 innings away from Yankee Stadium, he has a 2.84 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, .223 opponents' average and .624 OPS against.

It's a smaller sample, but those road numbers reflect more of the pitcher the Yankees likely expected they were getting in the 2017 trade for three prospects. The Gray they acquired had a 3.42 career ERA to that point, which would've been 2.97 if not for his disaster of a 2016 season that included a 5.69 ERA and just 22 starts.

The actual cost for Gray won't be cheap: He's slated to make upward of $9 million in his last season before free agency. Of course, if he finds himself in a new location and has a walk year like ...

8. Adam Ottavino's, he'll be in line for a far bigger payday. Ottavino had the best season among free-agent relievers, and multiple sources expect his name to be in play in the coming weeks as most of the top remaining relievers come off the board.

Although Ottavino has never closed, the market for him is not significantly different than that of Zach Britton, his left-handed peer, according to interested teams. While MLB's lean toward objective data has caused a headache for almost all other segments of free agency, top-end relief pitchers have not been hindered significantly -- and, if anything, they have benefitted in cases such as Ottavino's, where in the past not pitching the ninth might have precluded him from reaching an annual eight-figure salary.

Also in that neighborhood are Kelvin Herrera and David Robertson, whose markets are coming into focus and who could be the next relievers off the board. Their cases are far clearer than that of ...

9. Craig Kimbrel, who might well be the biggest mystery in free agency not named Harper or Machado. It's a question of not just where Kimbrel will land but also how much he'll get. Clearly the six-year, $100 million-plus deal bandied about is not happening and never was. The benevolence of teams toward one-inning pitchers goes only so far, and that length is not six years, perhaps not even five years -- and might again depend on the two big hitters.

Because as great as Kimbrel has been, it's not the White Sox's style to spend big on the bullpen, nor the Angels'. The Twins are seeking one-year deals on back-end-bullpen types, according to sources, and the Rays won't even consider Kimbrel at four years. Atlanta is planning to stick with its plethora of young arms and pursue upgrades at the trade deadline if necessary. That leaves the Phillies, and while they sought Edwin Diaz before he went to the Mets and kept in touch with Britton, any connection with the Phillies has been more the sentiment of competing officials.

Still, it could make sense. The Phillies aren't going to be hamstrung by the draft pick attached to Kimbrel. They are in clear win-now mode. So long as the Red Sox are sitting back on Kimbrel and waiting it out, as they've done thus far and show no signs of abandoning, there is room for Philadelphia to round out a bullpen that already includes Seranthony Dominguez, Pat Neshek, Edubray Ramos, Victor Arano and Tommy Hunter. If the Phillies really are inclined to be "a little stupid" with their money, as owner John Middleton suggested to USA Today early in the winter ...

10. Bryce Harper or Manny Machado could be one of their new teammates, too. Even if Pollock, Kimbrel and others would help move the Phillies beyond their collapse into mediocrity in 2018, they would not be Harper or Machado, two of the most talented players in the major leagues, both in the heart of their prime.

That's why Lozano and Harper's agent, Scott Boras, have been willing to wait: As much as teams are reticent to lock themselves into long deals, talent plays. Or at least talent has played in past free-agent markets, and nobody is cynical enough to believe that some of baseball's finest are going to be subject to the same market collapse as their peers.

Those players are waiting on Machado and Harper, hopeful that they can help juice a market that has been more active than last year's but shows disconcerting trends, too. Even if they're operating in an entirely different stratosphere, seeking guarantees of exponentially more than the average player, their places in the market do not exist in a vacuum. The dominoes are stacked. The only question now is how they'll tumble.