J.T. Realmuto has a new team. Finally. And now that the All-Star catcher is bound for Spring Training with the Phillies, the temptation exists to predict Bryce Harper and Manny Machado are certain to determine their destinations before the weekend is over.
The industry consensus: Not necessarily.
An official with one club pursuing Harper said his decision did not appear imminent as of Thursday evening. However, it is undeniable that the Phillies are a more appealing free-agent destination now than before Realmuto joined the roster.
Yes, the Phillies' offseason spending has fallen short of expectations -- so far. But general manager Matt Klentak has added two 2018 All-Stars (Realmuto and Jean Segura) to the everyday lineup, along with former National League Most Valuable Player Award winner Andrew McCutchen. David Robertson, a World Series champion who has appeared in 30 postseason games for the Yankees, is slated to be the team's closer.
As one source observed late Thursday, against that backdrop, Harper or Machado could credibly view themselves as one final piece of a championship-contending roster. When considering the immense pressure either player will face, that is a more appealing situation than signing with a team as its lone major addition.
The Realmuto trade didn't have a seismic effect on the overall marketplace -- at least not immediately -- because of its minimal effect on a key constituency: unsigned clients of agent Scott Boras.
Boras represents a large number of the top remaining free agents. He wields enormous influence on where -- and in what order -- major contracts are finalized. Harper's decision will impact which teams have the need and financial flexibility to sign Marwin Gonzalez, Mike Moustakas, Dallas Keuchel and Gio Gonzalez, all of whom are Boras clients. Once Harper signs, the others may do the same.
In fact, the greatest effect of the Realmuto trade on Harper is the extent to which it makes the Nationals increasingly wary of losing him to the improved Phillies. Nationals ownership may feel obligated to match (or come very close to) the Phils' offer if they believe Harper is on the verge of going to Philadelphia, as opposed to a team outside the NL East, according to one source with knowledge of Washington's thinking. The Nats made Harper a 10-year, $300 million offer near the end of the 2018 season, but it's unclear how many opt-outs and how much deferred money were in that proposal -- and if it's still on the table after the Nationals' other moves this offseason.
Sources with knowledge of the Phillies' plans say the team still wants to add a left-handed starting pitcher, with Keuchel the top available free agent in that category. Meanwhile, sources are divided on the question of whether signing Harper or Machado could help the Phillies sign Keuchel or free-agent closer Craig Kimbrel. Some in the industry theorize that the pitchers would be drawn to Philadelphia by the chance to compete for a championship alongside Harper or Machado; others point to the fact that the Phils would have less money to spend on pitching if they sign a superstar position player for $25 million or $30 million per season.
Four free-agent relievers -- Zack Britton, Jeurys Familia, Adam Ottavino and Joe Kelly -- have signed three-year contracts this offseason. To be sure, Kimbrel's representative believes the seven-time All-Star deserves a fourth guaranteed year at the very least. It's unclear if any team linked to Kimbrel in reports -- the Red Sox, Braves and Twins, to name a few -- are comfortable with that term for a closer who turns 31 in May.
The Phillies have remained privately optimistic about their chances to sign Harper or Machado, although the Harper sweepstakes have become more crowded. Some in the industry believe Harper, a Las Vegas native, wanted to sign with the Dodgers. That possibility no longer appears viable after Los Angeles signed free-agent outfielder A.J. Pollock. Perhaps not coincidentally, Harper reportedly has met with two West Coast teams -- the Padres and Giants -- in the days since Pollock agreed to terms.
An expensive signing of Harper would represent a dramatic departure in free-agent philosophy by Farhan Zaidi, the Giants' new president of baseball operations. Ironically, the Giants had spoken with the Phillies earlier this offseason about the possibility of Philadelphia acquiring San Francisco ace Madison Bumgarner via trade, but that scenario does not appear especially likely now, since the Phillies parted with young talent in trades for Segura and Realmuto.
The Padres prefer Harper to Machado, one source said, in part because the team believes prospect Fernando Tatis Jr. soon will be ready to play in the Majors at shortstop -- Machado's preferred position. The presence of Segura means Machado likely would play third base in Philadelphia. Moustakas' best options are the Padres and Phillies, depending upon which club signs Machado.
The Padres' need for a starting pitcher surpasses even that of the Phillies. They have shown interest in Keuchel and Gonzalez in free agency, as well as Blue Jays right-hander Marcus Stroman. However, Toronto isn't close to dealing Stroman. Instead, it hopes Stroman recovers from a dismal 2018 with a strong first half, thus increasing his trade value for a possible midseason move.