A year ago, the parts of Manny Machado and Bryce Harper were played by Eric Hosmer and J.D. Martinez.

It’s easy to forget, with the baseball world hanging on every Twitter rumor concerning Machado and Harper, but the January air was equally thick with suspense last year over the futures of two marquee free-agent hitters. Hosmer wound up with an eight-year, $144 million contract from the San Diego Padres, but not until Feb. 18. Eight days later, with spring training in full swing, Martinez finally secured a five-year, $110 million deal from the Boston Red Sox.

And they weren’t alone. Right-handers Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta didn’t sign contracts until Feb. 13 and March 12, respectively. It took closer Greg Holland until March 30 to find a job. Agents hinted at collusion. The players' union accused teams of not trying to win despite record revenues in the sport. A training camp for unemployed players opened in Bradenton, Fla. It was free-agent anarchy.

None of this is meant to suggest that the wait for Machado and Harper to make up their minds isn’t maddening or that the paucity of teams interested in a pair of 26-year-olds with Hall of Fame talent isn’t confounding. But maybe it’s simply the new norm that the free-agent signing season, like so much about baseball, will plod along.

The Phillies have waited this long for Machado or Harper. At least February is only eight days away.

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— Scott Lauber (extrainnings@philly.com)

In December, the Nationals signed free-agent pitcher Patrick Corbin to a six-year, $140 million contract, part of an active offseason in Washington.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP
In December, the Nationals signed free-agent pitcher Patrick Corbin to a six-year, $140 million contract, part of an active offseason in Washington.

Free-agent slowdown hasn’t applied to NL East

With three weeks until pitchers and catchers report to spring-training sites across Florida and Arizona, more than 150 free agents remain unsigned.

Don’t blame the National League East.

More than any other division in baseball, the NL East has been open for business throughout the winter. Among them, the Atlanta Braves, Washington Nationals, New York Mets and Phillies have signed 13 free agents to major-league deals. The Phillies also traded for shortstop Jean Segura, and the Nationals acquired catcher Yan Gomes and the Mets pulled off a blockbuster for closer Edwin Diaz and second baseman Robinson Cano.

Four months after the Braves claimed the division title with 90 victories, fewer than any other division champion, the NL East is loaded for bear. With four teams that can make a legitimate case to be the favorite in 2019, the Phillies' chances might well rest with signing either Manny Machado or Bryce Harper.

While the Phillies spent $73 million on free-agent outfielder Andrew McCutchen and reliever David Robertson, the Braves have dropped a total of $31 million on third baseman Josh Donaldson, right fielder Nick Markakis and catcher Brian McCann. In addition to taking on $100 million of Cano’s remaining salary, the Mets paid a total of $69 million for infielder Jed Lowrie, catcher Wilson Ramos and reliever Jeurys Familia.

But no team has been more active than the Nationals. They signed prized free-agent pitcher Patrick Corbin to a six-year, $140 million deal, outbidding the Phillies and New York Yankees, and spent an additional $49 million on right-hander Anibal Sanchez, reliever Trevor Rosenthal, first baseman Matt Adams, second baseman Brian Dozier and catcher Kurt Suzuki.

And Harper still could re-sign in Washington, which should be all the incentive the Phillies need to make him an offer he can’t refuse.

“I think everybody recognizes that we have a much-improved roster, and I think at the same time everybody would be excited to have an additional tool for us to deploy and go up against some real juggernauts in the National League East,” Phillies manager Gabe Kapler said this week. “The Nationals are improved. The Mets are improved. The Braves are improved. It’s clearly one of the better divisions in baseball now.”

The rundown

Rhys Hoskins has a “gut feeling” that the Phillies will land Harper or Machado. But the slugger is disappointed that more than 150 other free agents remain unsigned less than one month before spring training begins.

“No hard feelings,” Aaron Nola says of his looming arbitration hearing. But just because the ace grasps the business side of baseball doesn’t mean the Phillies should drag him through the arbitration process, as Bob Brookover writes.

A future Hall of Famer and a Miami trainer were part of the Phillies' offseason attempt to remake Odubel Herrera.

How did Mickey Moniak turn around his 2018 season? Matt Breen caught up with the former No. 1 overall pick.

The Phillies' confidence in young pitchers Nick Pivetta, Vince Velasquez and Zach Eflin stems from their belief in the predictive powers of FIP, as Brookie explains.

Roy Halladay never set out to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but that’s exactly what happened this week. The election of the late Phillies ace was “bittersweet,” in the words of Ruben Amaro Jr.

Of all the great details in Brookover’s story from the Hall of Fame press conference in New York yesterday, this one stood out to me: Halladay’s family flew up from Florida on Phillies owner John Middleton’s private jet.

Out of respect to the Blue Jays and Phillies, Halladay’s plaque will feature a logo-less cap. But Bob Ford suspects Doc would’ve wanted to be immortalized with a "P" above his brim.

Important dates

Feb. 13: First workout for Phillies pitchers and catchers in Clearwater, Fla., 9 a.m.

Feb. 18: Phillies' first full-squad workout in Clearwater, 9 a.m.

Feb. 22: Phillies vs. Rays in Grapefruit League opener in Port Charlotte, Fla., 1:05 p.m.

March 28: Opening day. Phillies vs. Braves at Citizens Bank Park, 3:05 p.m.

Curt Schilling got more votes than any player on the ballot who wasn't elected to the Hall of Fame earlier this week..
Curt Schilling got more votes than any player on the ballot who wasn't elected to the Hall of Fame earlier this week..

Stat of the day

It has been a week to celebrate Mariano Rivera, Roy Halladay, Edgar Martinez and Mike Mussina, who were elected to the Hall of Fame by the Baseball Writers' Association of America and will be feted in July at the induction ceremony in Cooperstown, N.Y.

But it isn’t too soon to look ahead to next year and the possible Hall call for another former Phillies pitcher.

Curt Schilling received 259 votes, 60 shy of reaching the 75 percent required for election by the BBWAA. He’s the top vote-getter among players who didn’t get elected this year, and his vote total increased from 51.2 percent last year to 60.9 percent. History shows that players who reach the 60 percent mark usually wind up getting elected, and Schilling has three more years of ballot eligibility.

Schilling has the credentials, too. He struck out 303 more batters than Mussina despite pitching 301 fewer innings. He has the fifth-best strikeout-to-walk ratio of all-time (4.383). And he was a postseason hero, posting an 11-2 record and 2.23 ERA in 19 playoff starts for three teams. Phillies fans will always remember his 147-pitch shutout of the Toronto Blue Jays in Game 5 of the 1993 World Series.

If not for the controversies that have stemmed from his post-career alt-right political and social viewpoints, Schilling might already be in the Hall of Fame. But from a baseball perspective, momentum seems to be building for him to get there, perhaps as soon as next year.

From the mailbag

Send questions by email or on Twitter @ScottLauber.

Answer: Thanks, @bsam63, for the question. In essence, you’re suggesting that the Phillies make the same guarantee to Dallas Keuchel that they did a year ago for Jake Arrieta. At the very least, that seems like a sensible starting point in negotiations.

Keuchel is 31, the age that Arrieta was last year. Both pitchers have one Cy Young Award to their credit. Keuchel has a career 3.66 ERA, 1.250 WHIP, 7.2 strikeouts per nine innings and a 2.76 strikeout-to-walk ratio; Arrieta went into free agency with a 3.57 ERA, 1.169 WHIP, 8.3 strikeouts per nine innings and a 2.66 strikeout-to-walk ratio. They’re also both represented by agent Scott Boras, who surely will try to get creative with options or opt-outs.

But if Boras is unable to get a deal that satisfies Keuchel, he could steer him toward a one-year, “pillow” contract and take him back out on the market next year. Boras has used that tactic before.