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Biggest deal may not be best for Harper, Machado

January 4, 2019

Two months ago, when the free-agent process was beginning for Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, this is how I ended a column about why I hoped Harper stayed with the Nationals:"[Harper] didn't just become the face of the franchise when Major League Baseball came back to Washington. He became the

Two months ago, when the free-agent process was beginning for Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, this is how I ended a column about why I hoped Harper stayed with the Nationals:
"[Harper] didn't just become the face of the franchise when Major League Baseball came back to Washington. He became the franchise. I hope he plays his whole career in Washington, the way Cal Ripken Jr. played his whole career with Baltimore, about an hour away. Everybody waits now to see where Harper goes. I hope he isn't going anywhere. Not a Nationals fan. Just a baseball fan."
I thought that way then and still think that way, that the best fit for Harper is Nationals Park. I actually think the best and most interesting thing for Harper, and the game, is if he is the big, attractive, expensive free agent who stays instead of goes. Maybe we'll know about that sooner rather than later. Or maybe this plays out a little longer and even into February, the way it did last year with J.D. Martinez, who only became the most important player acquired by anybody last season.
There is always fascination when stars reach the point in their contracts and careers when they have the right to test the market. There is added fascination this year because both Harper and Machado are just 26 years old. It's one year older than Alex Rodriguez was in his first season with the Rangers, after he left the Mariners and signed a record-breaking contract of $252 million with the Rangers at the time. Three years later, of course, he couldn't wait to get away from the Rangers and they couldn't wait to get rid of him, and that contract.

At the time, Rodriguez and his agent, Scott Boras, who now reps Harper, absolutely set out to break a record and sure did, even though you heard a lot of happy hoo-haw at the time about all the exhaustive study Alex had done, like cramming for a final exam, about the Rangers' farm system.
It all brought to mind one of the best lines I ever heard about sports, from the late George Young, one of the great football men, and the general manager who made the football Giants matter again in the 1980s. George was involved in a tough negotiation with one of his stars the year before the Giants won their first Super Bowl. I was on the phone with him one day and said that the star, and his agents, kept saying the impasse wasn't just about the money.
"When they say it's not about the money," Young said, "it's always about the money."
That negotiation involved a lot less money than Rodriguez made after the 2000 season, when Boras made sure to double the contract Kevin Garnett, an NBA star, had recently gotten from the Minnesota Timberwolves. It was a whole lot less money, in the NFL of the '80s, than what we might end up looking at with Harper and Machado.
But one thing hasn't changed over the past 30 years with contracts like these in sports: In the end, the money between what the stars get and what they pass up won't affect a single day of the rest of their lives.
Free-agent rumors
Doesn't mean they shouldn't try to get every last dollar, or million dollars. These free agents have always waited their turn and earned the right to make whatever they can make on the open market. Usually, this is the chance at the biggest score they will ever make, even though seven years after Rodriguez made what he made from the Rangers he made even more from the Yankees after he exercised an opt-out clause in 2007. They can shoot for the moon if they want to. A-Rod did. So did Jose Pujols, even though I think that if Pujols had it all to do over again, he would have stayed in St. Louis for less than the Angels offered him.
As always, it's complicated. There is more wisdom on this, and it comes from White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who once said this about the free-agent market: "All it takes is one dumb owner."

There are baseball people I know who have predicted all year that in the end Machado will take the biggest offer. And, ironically enough, that offer might very well come from Reinsdorf's team, the White Sox. The Sox might look at Machado as being the kind of game-changing shortstop that Tom Hicks, the owner of the Rangers when Rodriguez was a free agent, thought A-Rod was going to be when he left Seattle.
But would the White Sox be best for Machado's career, or would the Yankees, who would surround Machado with stars and history and a chance to not only change teams, but change his personal brand? Harper is going to get rich wherever he goes. But are the Phillies going to make him happier in his career, or the Dodgers, or the White Sox, or even the Yankees, than the Nationals already do?
Harper and Machado are the ones facing the decision right now. Someday, Michael Trout will be. Rodriguez got paid after leaving Seattle, you bet, and kept getting paid. He won one World Series in his career, the only one in which he played. When they say it's about the money, it's always about the money. But maybe it shouldn't be. Stay tuned.

Mike Lupica is a columnist for MLB.com.