Bryce Harper or Manny Machado? It’s a debate that lasted through the offseason, as both talented 26-year-old free agents sought massive contracts. In the end, it was Harper who landed the largest total commitment (13 years, $330 million from the Phillies) but Machado who got the more lucrative average annual value (10 years, $300 million from the Padres), plus an opt-out clause after five years.
And the debate isn’t over just because both players are off the board. These two figure to be compared to each other for the rest of their careers, sparking discussion of whether Philadelphia or San Diego made the better deal.
In anticipation, MLB.com polled its reporters with a simple question:
Will Harper or Machado make the bigger impact with his new team over the length of his contract?
The results were as close as they could be …
Harper: 18 votes
Here is a breakdown of the responses, with a focus on the key reasons why reporters chose one or the other:
HARPER (18 total votes)
For better or worse, Harper and the Phillies seem to be together for the long haul, in a way Machado and the Padres perhaps are not.
For one thing, Harper is signed for an extra three years. For another, Machado can opt out of his deal after the 2023 season, while Harper has no opt-out clause. And finally, Harper has a full no-trade clause, while Machado’s is limited to a select number of teams.
Respondents to our poll cited all of those factors, in the belief that Harper will wind up with the longer tenure with his club, giving him more time to make an impact.
Anthony Castrovince, national columnist: “This is a baseball question, but it could very well become a business question. To me, the key to the question is ‘with his new team.’ Given the nature of the two contracts -- Harper with no opt-out clause, Machado going to a market that has demonstrated certain payroll limits in the past -- it appears far more likely for Harper to remain with Philly for the duration of his deal than for Machado to do so with San Diego. That's why Harper is my choice.”
He’s on a contender -- right now
It’s hard to know how things might change 10 or 13 years in the future, but for now, the Phillies appear to have a much stronger claim as contenders. They won 80 games last season (compared to 66 for the Padres) and even before landing Harper had added Andrew McCutchen, J.T. Realmuto, David Robertson, and Jean Segura.
Projection systems now see Philly as a playoff team but San Diego below .500, even with Machado in the fold. That gave several respondents more confidence that Harper will help spur the sort of team success that helps cement a player’s legacy.
Joe Trezza, Orioles beat reporter: “The Padres have all the prospects, but the Phillies have a window now. And Harper is the piece that makes them legitimate World Series contenders the minute he signs -- and for the foreseeable future.”
The highest peak
Harper’s career to this point has been a bit of a rollercoaster, with some injuries and slumps accompanying memorable hot streaks. Perhaps he lags behind Machado in terms of dependability and consistency.
But we can’t forget that in 2015 Harper was the NL MVP: He led the league with 42 home runs and batted .330/.460/.649 for a 198 OPS+ that was the best single-season mark since Barry Bonds retired -- until Mike Trout put up a 199 last year.
That demonstrated peak performance mattered to our respondents, some of whom also mentioned that Harper will be heading to cozy Citizens Bank Park, which has a much more hitter-friendly reputation than San Diego’s Petco Park.
David Adler, researcher/reporter: “Harper will have higher highs. Machado's defense at third will make him more consistent. In the end Harper's peak dominance will make the bigger difference.”
MACHADO (17 total votes)
Gold Glove love
It’s clear that defense is the biggest edge Machado has over Harper, and for many MLB.com reporters, that was the deciding factor.
While Machado played mostly shortstop last year, the Padres will move him back to third base, where he is a two-time Gold Glove Award winner whose 84 career Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) trail only Nolan Arenado at that position since 2012.
Harper, by contrast, racked up an unsightly -26 DRS in the outfield last year, and ranked 84th out of 87 qualified outfielders with -13 outs above average. Even if that was a blip and Harper bounces back with the glove in 2019, he is highly unlikely to approach Machado’s value as a skilled defender at a more difficult position.
Juan Toribio, Rays beat reporter: “You can’t go wrong with either player, but I’m giving the nod to Machado because I think he’ll make an impact on both sides of the ball for a longer period of time. I can’t see Harper running around the outfield at age 38, but I can see Machado playing somewhere in the infield [and doing an OK job] at age 35.”
You can count on him
Some respondents to the poll took the opposite view of those who valued Harper’s high peak potential.
For all of the (partially self-inflicted) criticism Machado received last fall over his level of hustle, he has done something few players are able to do -- stay in the lineup every day. Over the past four seasons, Machado leads MLB in games played (637) and is one of only five players to appear in 155 or more games in each of those years. He also has been worth at least 6 WAR in three of those, according to FanGraphs, while Harper has never reached the 5 WAR mark outside of his monstrous 2015 campaign.
Mandy Bell, Indians beat reporter: “Harper may have more fame and a few big seasons, but I think Machado's numbers will remain more consistent over the next 10 years and his durability could keep him in the lineup more often than Harper will be in that time span.”
The future is bright
While the Phillies appear to be in much better position to contend in 2019, this question deals with the entire length of the players’ contracts. Therefore, the fact that the Padres currently have the No. 1 farm system in the game, according to MLB Pipeline, loomed large for several voters.
Some prospects won’t pan out. But San Diego’s overwhelming wave of oncoming talent -- led by shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. -- prompted MLB Pipeline senior writer Jim Callis to predict that Machado will wind up with multiple World Series rings in San Diego. Machado seems to be arriving at the perfect time to lead that young group into the future.
Do-Hyoung Park, Twins beat reporter: “Harper has the higher ceiling, but Machado has the higher floor and will be supported by a deep prospect pipeline with high-upside talent in the coming years. Machado was signed to be a franchise cornerstone, and the view of his impact will be married to the Padres' success over his contract -- and San Diego looks poised for a long, fruitful window of contention.”