We don’t know how they did it. But we know what they’ve done.
Spring training opens in less than three weeks, and no one wants Bryce Harper. Or Manny Machado. At least no one wants them very much.
What you hear all over baseball is the sound of one hand clapping as owners backslap each other quietly for their marvelous miracle of salary subtraction.
On Thursday, the Los Angeles Dodgers signed right-handed-hitting free agent outfielder A.J. Pollock for $55 million guaranteed for four years. That’s another door slamming on Harper. That Dodgers trade of Yasiel Puig last month was done to open an outfielder spot for Pollock, not for Harper. He’s shut out. Again.
I predicted this last March: “The $400 million Harper contract — that’s dead. Over the next year, we will find out just how deeply it’s buried under the rubble of MLB’s collapsing free agent salary structure. Is his new price more like $300 million for eight years or perhaps $250 million, if he’s lucky, for seven?
“When the pendulum of baseball economics swings, it swings further than anybody anticipates.”
I thought I had exaggerated. Instead, I was cautious. Harper’s best concrete offer now is not for an average annual value of $37.5 million or $35.7 million (my guesses).
No team claims that it has any contract offer on the table to Harper at all. There’s been plenty of big talk and goo-goo eyes but no “sign here.”
Now, let me make my next Boz-you-fool prediction: Harper will be funneled to Philadelphia, where I doubt that he longs to play, for less than the 10-year, $300 million offer from the Nationals that he rejected in September. He will end up with the Phillies because no other team in MLB will make him a competitive offer. He will be boxed in.
And Machado will end up signing for perhaps $200 million with the Chicago White Sox, a team that lost 100 games last year and that, by normal baseball logic, should hold little charm for Machado. Except, hold the chuckles, the White Sox traded for his brother-in-law last month.
The Nats? Some beg them to bid. I hope they do if they can find a spot — consistent with their long-term roster-building needs — to jump into the market as Harper’s price falls. But do we think any team — especially a club that has said Harper probably won’t be back, that they have moved on, but they plan a nice video tribute when he returns with a new team — will be such an outlier?
Look at this whole offseason as one team after another fills out its roster with little “auction mentality” bidding. The Nats are the most conspicuous team that competed aggressively, grabbing lefty Patrick Corbin for $140 million when no one else had gone above $100 million. Maybe the Nats break this logjam. It only takes one billionaire to change his mind to shake up this picture. But trends tend to stay intact. This one has been in place for two offseasons. With each week that passes, it’s harder to see a bidding war busting out for Bryce or Manny.
I don’t want to be right. Such an outcome would be bad for MLB. In the NBA, superstar players pick teams as if they were choosing up sides with their buddies. Now MLB risks looking as if it’s choosing up sides for its players. Suspicion of uncompetitive or anti-competitive behavior could smear the game, no matter how much all 30 teams chant, “We suddenly all got smart at the same time and came to nearly identical conclusions about price and value.”
And a whole bunch of teams decided they could be profitable in a rich sport with lots of revenue to share, so why sign expensive stars to try to win titles?
How has this decimation of baseball salary expectations been accomplished? I don’t know. Is it legal? We will find out, somehow, someway, some day.
But here’s what we know.
The Phillies, without doubt, would offer Harper a good deal of money. They want him. They sweet-talked him for hours in Vegas. They bragged about the “stupid” amount of money they would offer him. But why should they make an opening bid when there are no other active bidders — out of 29 other teams?
Machado is in a similar boat — or box. The White Sox say they love him and want him. But since the Phillies recently made it clear they would not sign both Harper and Machado, there is no rush for the White Sox to bid either. Two teams. Two stars. Just wait.
Unless Washington or some mystery team gets back into the picture as a third musical chair, there is no market for these two 26-year-olds who were supposed to be the most delicious combination of talent and youth ever.
Every other logical bidder for either player has said — or made clear by their roster moves — that they aren’t competing to get either.
Last week, everyone associated with the Cubs, except the scoreboard operator, said Harper wasn’t coming to the North Side . The week before, the Yankees said, again, that they didn’t need or want Harper with their current roster and that they had other priorities.
The Dodgers have hinted to anyone who will listen that they need right-handled hitters desperately but have no use for another left-handed bat, even Harper’s. Hence, the fragile but gifted Pollock, 31, who, in the past six seasons in 606 games, has a WAR of 20.1 while Harper, in 788 games, is at 22.2.
The Dodgers, the team that always looked like the best fit for Harper’s personality, clearly do not want him now — not on a 10-year deal or a rumored five-year deal.
As for the Nats, they have signed $183 million worth of players this winter. That total could grow if player incentives are reached and team options are exercised. Also, a $125 million-plus deal probably is needed for Anthony Rendon. December rumors — or hopes — of Harper and the Nats getting back together now appear to have the substance of tissue paper.
Add up all the most likely scenarios and what do you get: Dodgers, Cubs, Yankees and Nats now out. No “mystery team,” either sighted or even detected, like a dark hole, by the light it doesn’t give off. The Phillies are after Harper; the White Sox are after Machado. But neither in a rush — and has any reason to be.
Are we simply watching irrational excesses being wrung out of the free agent market after too many decades in a contract Wild West? Or, in addition to that business-driven logic, are we also watching competition and entertainment value being drained from a sport for the sake of maxing profit? Or is this all an accident?
Every analysis of every free agent offseason since 1976 has required the same disclaimer: Everyone is almost always wrong.
Unfortunately, this time I might not be.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.
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