It wasn’t supposed to go down like this. Bryce Harper, long ago anointed as the next big thing in baseball with his arrogant attitude and a Sports Illustrated cover at 16 labeling him “The Chosen One” — of course we now know that a certain player named Mike Trout exists — was supposed to have teams knocking down his doors to make him baseball’s first $400 million man.
Obviously, that hasn’t happened. If the reports are accurate, the most that has been offered was a ten-year, $300 million deal from the Washington Nationals, one that Harper turned down.
The other big name that remains unsigned is Manny Machado. Machado, a former gold glove third baseman, made the move to shortstop before the 2018 season, presumably to enhance his market value after the season. Thus far, it doesn’t much seem like it matters, as there has been even less rumored traction on his front.
In Machado’s case, it’s not terribly difficult to understand. Yes, he plays a premium infield position. Yes, he’s had a few very good seasons in his six Major League campaigns. The problem is, if you’re a team looking at signing him, and with front offices being much more conscious of actual value in today’s climate, to sign him you basically need to justify that the financial cost is worth whatever incremental gain you’ll receive.
For example, A Dodgers reunion is likely out of the question because they have Justin Turner slotted at third and Corey Seager returning from injury at shortstop. There’s nothing to be gained by upending either player in favor of Manny Machado, especially at the price he’s reportedly asking. Of course, that’s a very simple example.
In fact, if we’re just looking at teams that could possibly be looking to pay — and it to make sense to pay the asking price — for an improvement at shortstop, the list I come up with (on the fly, mind you) consists of the Giants, Diamondbacks, Mets, Padres, Marlins, White Sox, Royals, and maybe the Reds.
We can pretty much rule out the Marlins and Royals, and I don’t see the Reds being a player. So that leaves us with five teams, or less than twenty percent of the league where it might make sense to break the bank for Manny Machado.
None of this is to say he’s not good. He’s very good. But it’s going to take his asking price to come down a bit before the list of suitors grows and it begins to make financial sense for an organization to sign him to a long-term deal. That’s not to say that there couldn’t be gains made from a marketing perspective, etc. But strictly from a $/wins standpoint, Manny Machado just doesn’t currently make sense for many of the teams who would normally be willing to toss some cash his way.
Which brings me to Bryce Harper. Harper’s case is complex because, on one hand, you have a very talented hitter who has shown flashes of brilliance. On the other, you’re looking at a player who, on the whole, has vastly under-performed expectations.
One thing I don’t see talked about very often with Harper is that, truly, he only has one great season on his resume since being called up in early 2012. That was the 2015 season in which his fWAR was 9.3 on the way to taking the NL MVP award. Since then? He’s not even come close to approaching that kind of value.
Whether it be due to injuries or, increasingly, teams employing the use of the infield shift against him, Bryce Harper hasn’t been anything close to what he would need to be in order to justify a $400 million deal. Never mind that he doesn’t play a premium defensive position — and at that, his defense already appears to be below average — he’s simply not a good enough hitter on the whole of his career to justify, for my liking, even the $300 million he turned down in Washington.
When we’re talking about just doing a “break even” analysis of a player contract, we’re talking about a team looking at things like $/WAR, or the amount of money they’re spending for each additional win above a replacement player. In Bryce Harper, at $30 million per year with an average fWAR of 4.4 per season, a team would be spending just under $7 million per additional win on Bryce Harper. That alone is about in line with where you’d like it to be, but also doesn’t factor in that such a deal would include part of his mid-30s. On top of that, it’s skewed a bit by that one amazing season in 2015.
If we take it a little further and toss out both his best and worst seasons, the average fWAR per season goes down to 3.96. Suddenly, you’re looking at spending $7.6 million per additional win, and that’s assuming he produces that well through his age-36 season. I wouldn’t count on it.
Contrast that with the production of Mike Trout, who became a full-time big leaguer in the same season as Harper in 2012. Trout, excluding the cup of coffee he got being called up late in 2011, has been good for 9.14 WAR per season on average, over double Harper’s in either of the aforementioned scenarios.
Now that… that would be the kind of player worth handing a $400 million contract. At that point, the dollars per win comes out to $4.38 million per additional win above replacement. Even after factoring in aging curves and the like that’s pretty damn good.
And so while it’s easy to say that MLB owners are conspiring to drive salaries down, that just doesn’t appear to be the case in my eyes. For my money, I believe Manny Machado is a better signing than Bryce Harper, but I wouldn’t be willing to hand either of them more than about $265 million, and even that would likely be something I’d rather do with Machado as opposed to Bryce Harper.
It’s easy to sit here and say that owners aren’t spending like they used to, but if Mike Trout hits free agency after the 2020 season, I’ve a feeling that we’ll see that simply isn’t a true statement.