MLB Free Agency is well underway and, per usual, the rumors are difficult to keep track of. But two names that have been tied to the Phillies that haven’t had trouble cutting through the noise are Bryce Harper and Manny Machado.
Speculation of the team saving their bankroll for this winter in order to open up their wallets for one of the two generational talents has existed for well over a year now. With their contracts finally up, the Phillies have positioned themselves to add one of the league’s two superstars better than any other club in baseball.
With both being real possibilities, which one should the team prioritize? And, is that even a question they need to concern themselves with?
The case for Harper
Let’s start with his 2015 MVP season. Harper hit .330 with 42 HRs and 99 RBIs for a league-leading OPS of 1.109. He tore the cover off the baseball all season long and at just 22 years old established himself as the future face of the game.
To Harper’s credit, he had another season in 2017 with an OPS over 1.000. A feat that Machado has never come close to accomplishing. To further hammer home my point, Harper’s career OPS is .900 compared to Machado’s .822—a significant enough of a difference to point out.
I say all this purely to show that Harper is a slightly better hitter than Machado. Not to knock Manny, he’s a great hitter in his own right, but he’s just not quite the same lineup altering presence that Harper would be.
In a nutshell, that’s why Harper is generally considered the better player. It’s also why Harper will probably get a bigger contract, although when you’re dealing with annual salaries of over $30 million, what’s the difference?
The decision gets much more complicated when you consider the argument for Machado…
The case for Machado
The case for Machado starts and ends with the position he plays. It’s not easy to find offensive value at shortstop.
At the plate, the variance from one starting shortstop and the next is a much bigger than from one starting corner outfielder to the next.
To prove the point of how far the drop off is, Freddy Galvis, a player who was routinely disparaged as a hitter during his time in Philly, has spent his career in the middle of the pack of shortstops offensively (by basically every metric you chose to evaluate).
A career .246 hitter like Galvis is roughly the 15th best offensive shortstop in the game. The 15th best hitting right fielder last season (minimum 400 at-bats) was Daniel Palka, who hit 27 HRs & 67 RBIs over just 417 at-bats. Put another way: the OPS of an average right fielder is a full .100 points higher than the average shortstop.
All of this serves to prove the point that while Machado may be a slightly less productive at the plate than Harper (and the gap is very small) the offensive production he provides is actually more valuable to a roster given the scarcity of dependable bats at shortstop.
Given the MVP-award, and slightly gaudier numbers from Harper, it’s obvious why he’s the preferred player to Machado among most (not all) baseball fans. But slugging shortstops like Machado and Jimmy Rollins don’t grow on trees, and power hitting corner outfielders kind of do.
But why be forced to choose between the two when we may not have to…
Is there an argument for both?
The only reason this sounds far-fetched is because, under most circumstances, the idea of adding two of the games most talented players in the same offseason is absurd.
Normally, a team on the cusp on contending (the only type of team that would be in the running for said superstars) either doesn’t have the money to spend on both—see Boston & LA—or doesn’t quite have the need/fit for both—see New York. And if you do have money to blow and positions that need filling, then you typically won’t appeal as a contender.
Yet, the Phillies check all those boxes. They have money to blow, openings in the outfield and infield, and are still considered “close” to contending.
The ‘close to contending’ can be attributed to the fact that the team quietly owns one of the best pitching staffs in baseball. If you look past a league-average ERA, the Phillies starting pitching ranked at the top of the league in Wins Above Average (WAA), which is a much better indicator of the independent value a player/position has provided to its ball club.
Their bullpen, on the other hand, ranked 4th in WAA, giving their overall staff a rank of 3rd in baseball.
Juxtapose this with the WAA of their position players (taking into account both hitting and fielding) and the Phillies ranked dead last.
The youth and dominance of the Phillies pitching lead by Cy Young candidate Aaron Nola makes this an attractive destination; as does the depth and talent currently marking the team’s farm system.
When Machado and Harper take that into account along with the ‘big market’ of Philadelphia and ownership’s open-willingness to spend on multiple stars, then it’s not difficult to understand why two of the game’s premier superstars are seriously considering the Phillies.
Neither is also a possibility
If we’re going to entertain the idea of adding both players then it’s only fair to mention the possible disappointment of adding neither.
Remember when the Sixers were the tentative favorites to land LeBron James? And then when that didn’t pan out do you remember how probable a Kawhi Leonard trade began to feel? The thought of ending the NBA offseason without adding at least some form a star seemed unlikely, and yet that’s exactly what happened.
I won’t rule out that same possibility for the Phillies.
Machado could easily chose to hang around in LA, or join the more proven Cubs; and Harper may finally become a Yankee or simply chose to re-sign in DC.
At this point, any of these are realistic. But if I was a betting man, I would say that Matt Klentak is about to have more success wearing the “star hunter” cape than Brett Brown did.