CLEARWATER, Fla. — The Phillies have been coming to this Gulf Coast town since 1947 to escape the cold of winter and it’s safe to assume they have never felt more heat in spring training than they do right now.
In an instant early Tuesday afternoon, the landscape of the most fascinating and infuriating free-agent market in baseball history changed when word quickly spread that superstar free agent Manny Machado had agreed to a deal with the San Diego Padres. The price was 10 years and $300 million according to reports and, according to Phillies general manager Matt Klentak, it was too steep for Machado’s talented services.
“We had a pretty good idea of where this thing was going,” Klentak said as he sat inside a conference room at Spectrum Field. “There’s a certain value we believe a player brings and we were willing to get aggressive [on Machado]. If the reports are true, then the contract will exceed our valuation and sometimes you have to be willing to walk away.”
That’s fine and maybe even perfect depending on how the free-agent game plays out from here. There were rumblings throughout the winter that the Phillies’ decision-makers preferred Machado over Bryce Harper. Given the team’s increasing value on analytics in the John Middleton era of ownership that seemed plausible. Harper’s career offensive numbers are slightly better, but Machado is a superior defender at the premium positions of shortstop and third base.
Nevertheless, the court of public opinion in Philadelphia was always in favor of Harper over “Johnny Hustle” and now there is no choice between the two to be made.
It’s Harper or bust even if the Phillies would like to spin the narrative that they have had a fine offseason without the addition of either Machado or Harper. Trot that notion out should Harper sign elsewhere and it’s likely to go over about as well as the city’s soda tax.
The two big questions for the Phillies now: How far north of $300 million are they willing to go for Harper and will that figure be enough to convince the six-time all-star and former National League MVP that Citizens Bank Park should be his new home?
The Phillies, by letting Machado sign elsewhere, have shown that there’s a limit to what they are willing to spend for a player, but we don’t know what that limit is for Harper.
“I’ll say this, every player is different,” Klentak said. “They bring different strengths, weaknesses, risks, rewards, etc.”
I’d say somewhere between $350 and $375 million is about the right price for the Phillies to pay Harper. I don’t think any other team is going to be willing to pay more than $350 million and if the Phillies can make that deal then Boras and Harper can hold up victory signs in their winter-long battle to land the biggest deal in baseball history.
The Phillies, in turn, would land the more marketable of the two 26-year-old superstars. If recent polls of Phillies fans are true, the signing of Harper should provide a much bigger bump in attendance than Machado would have. That alone should make Harper worth more than Machado because it makes the deal a good business move.
The vibe out of Phillies camp following the news about Machado did not seem to be one of either surprise or disappointment. In fact, three team sources said they were not disappointed at all by the news.
“The other guy [Harper] is a better fit here,” one of them said.
I’ve always believed that to be true. Harper, in addition to his ability to sell more tickets than Machado, is a better lineup and clubhouse fit for the Phillies. He has already befriended Rhys Hoskins, who emerged as a power-hitting clubhouse leader in his first full season. Hoskins, in fact, said Tuesday he talked to Harper as recently as last week and the two have recently interacted on Instagram.
That, of course, does not mean Harper is about to sign with the Phillies.
“I think that part has gotten kind of comical with people trying to make something that is nothing into something,” Hoskins said. “It’s just not there. It’s 26-year-old guys being 26-year-old guys and interacting on social media. That’s what we do.”
It’s what Harper and Hoskins could do together in a lineup that makes Phillies fans so intrigued. Hoskins hit 34 home runs in his first full season and 40 or more seems possible. Harper hit 42 home runs when he won the MVP award in 2015 and has averaged 32 home runs per year in seven seasons. Phillies fans have dreamt all winter about Harper hitting from the left side followed by Hoskins hitting from the right side. Add in all the other additions and the Phillies should have a lineup that even Charlie Manuel could love.
“Would I like to play with somebody I know? Of course I would,” Hoskins said. “I think him and I are developing a relationship that could last a long time. Any time you can play with a friend, I think that’s always exciting.”
Hoskins, of course, has been saying for some time that he thought the Phillies would get one of the two 26-year-old superstars on the free-agent market. Now one of them is gone and only Bryce Harper remains on the board.