There's something interesting happening in the trade market. The big boys are circling like the sharks that they are. Except they are circling in a peculiar fashion, as if the sea is a junior high dance floor, with only one person in the middle.
Make no mistake: It is a dance, and the Orioles are the ones attempting to orchestrate it. Late Monday, a couple puffs of smoke materialized, two reports identifying the Yankees as entering the mix for Baltimore's once-in-a-generation shortstop. One of those reports came from the hometown paper. Then, Tuesday, the cold water: a dispatch from the New York Post in which Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said he was focusing his efforts on the starting-pitching market.
Information is currency, but so is disinformation. Distinguishing one from the other is the key to winning the leverage battle. For most of the previous three months, the conventional wisdom suggested the Orioles would be bringing a weak hand to the table. They would not be able to re-sign Manny Machado, and everybody knew it. They would need to trade him, and everybody knew it.
But here's something else that everybody apparently knows: This might be the only chance a current general manager gets to add a player of Machado's caliber, one still in the glorious thick of his prime. He entered Tuesday with a .934 OPS and 21 home runs. Only 15 shortstops in MLB history have finished a season with those numbers. And Machado still has a half season to go.
It's tough to glean a specific picture of reality through the smoke, but the sheer quantity of it should make clear the challenge confronting the Phillies as they attempt to identify the path most likely to land them their long-coveted prize. In addition to the Yankees and Phillies, the Dodgers have carved out a prominent place in the pre-July 31 rumor mill. That's a disconcerting situation for anybody who has it in the back of their mind that any pursuit of Machado is best left to free agency. And, right now, it's the strongest argument that the Phillies' front office should follow its manager's advice and be the boldest self it can be.
All of this is a prelude to a confession. I've spent most of this season convinced that the Phillies should avoid any sort of trade that depletes the stock of talent they've spent the last five years rebuilding. While Machado did not rule out the possibility of signing an extension before hitting free agency when asked about it last week, it's difficult to imagine his agent advising him to do so. There's a big difference between $300 million and $400 million and $500 million, and Machado is such a unique talent that he cannot rule out any of them. Given the amount of money that teams will have to spend this offseason, and his near-universal fit on major-league rosters, predicting the ceiling on his market is nearly impossible. An extension of almost any amount would come with the possibility that he is leaving money on the table. Which means he is likely to be a rental, and any trade is likely to come with the possibility that he belongs to someone else before the new year arrives.
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But the cost of not making the move could be equally significant if, by not making it, a team like the Yankees or Dodgers pulls the trigger. The Phillies might be able to win a free-agent bidding war if a new start in Philadelphia is the bright lights and big city. But give Machado a couple of months in Manhattan or southern California, and the almost-certain playoff runs for which the Dodgers and Yankees are preparing, and it is easy to envision a scenario in which his heart is already won.
So, yes, I'm having second thoughts. If Machado ends up somewhere else before the end of the month, we could look back this offseason and realize that this was a game where you needed to ante in order to play. There's a lot of sense in the notion that the best chance at getting him here long-term is to spend two months winning his heart and his mind. He might not sign an extension, but if trading for him gets you the chance to match his best offer, any price might be worth it to pay.