The biggest questions of the offseason have been where will Manny Machado and Bryce Harper sign for 2019 and beyond. Well, Spring Training has started for all 30 teams and both superstars remain unsigned, leaving plenty of Hot Stove intrigue as position players get set to report next week.
Which of the two will sign first? And what will it mean to the other -- not to mention a couple of other high-profile unsigned free agents Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel -- when the first domino falls?
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Here's a look at what a Harper or Machado signing would mean for the rest of the top available free agents. We'll start with a few Harper scenarios, and then move on to Machado. We won't hit on every possible scenario, but we've attempted to address the most likely possibilities.
IF HARPER SIGNS WITH THE PHILLIES ...
Machado: The White Sox would immediately become heavy favorites for Machado in this scenario, though the Yankees could make a late move for the infielder, trying to convince Machado that playing for a contender would make a shorter-term deal worth his while. The Phillies would likely be out of the mix, unless ownership's definition of "stupid" money was even crazier than any of us believed.
Keuchel: The Phillies have been viewed as a logical landing spot for the left-hander, but Philadelphia's pursuit of Harper and Machado has left the former American League Cy Young Award winner playing a waiting game. The Phillies could still make a play for Keuchel even after signing Harper, though that seems unlikely. The Braves could still use a starter, and given that the Phillies would have strengthened their lineup with the addition of Harper, perhaps Atlanta counters with a Keuchel signing. A return to the Astros would also remain in play.
Kimbrel: Like Keuchel, many have viewed Philly as a potential fit for Kimbrel, even after the Phillies' signing of David Robertson. A Harper signing would make that less likely, making the Red Sox and Braves the favorites to sign the All-Star closer, possibly on a shorter-term deal with opt-outs that would allow Kimbrel to return to the free-agent market again in a year or two.
IF HARPER SIGNS WITH THE NATIONALS ...
Machado: Having missed out on Harper, the Phillies could put the full-court press on Machado, who has been the team's preferred choice between the two all winter, according to sources. While both players were on the market, the fallback plan was always that the Phillies could sign the other if they miss out on the first. If Harper returns to the Nationals, Washington would become an overwhelming favorite in the NL East despite the moves the Phillies have made this offseason, making Machado feel like more of a necessity for Philly. The White Sox, who have been in pursuit of both players for much of the winter, could also make a bigger push for Machado.
Keuchel: Of course, Philadelphia could also pivot in another direction, addressing their pitching staff instead of making a bigger push for Machado. Adding Keuchel to Aaron Nola and Jake Arrieta would take some pressure off the youngsters at the back end of the rotation, while the Phillies would also have enough money to add another notable reliever. Which brings us to …
Kimbrel: With Robertson and Seranthony Domínguez already in tow to anchor the back of the Phillies' bullpen, the addition of Kimbrel would give them the best bullpen in the National League. The Braves might also feel some pressure if Harper stays in Washington, making a reunion with Kimbrel an option, too.
IF HARPER SIGNS WITH THE GIANTS ...
Machado: This might be the dream scenario for Machado, who could spark a bidding war between the Phillies, White Sox and Padres. Machado would be in a similar situation if Harper goes back to Washington, though a big move by the Giants could push San Diego general manager A.J. Preller to make a big splash.
Keuchel/Kimbrel: A Harper-to-San Francisco move would leave Keuchel and Kimbrel in a similar situation as he would be in if Harper was to return to Washington. The Phillies' interest in the pitchers would likely still depend upon Machado and how aggressive they chose to get in their pursuit of the infielder.
IF MACHADO SIGNS WITH THE PHILLIES ...
Harper: Philadelphia would likely be out of the Harper mix, which might ease the pressure on the Nationals to go above and beyond to bring back the face of their franchise at any cost. The White Sox would then become the favorites to sign Harper, though the Padres could also make a push. But what if Harper decides he wants to play for more of a "win-now" club? Perhaps the former NL MVP might consider a shorter-term deal, giving teams such as the Yankees, Cubs and Dodgers an opportunity to re-think their positions.
Keuchel: Much like the Harper-to-Philly scenario, this would be bad news for Keuchel. The left-hander would lose his biggest potential bidder as the Phillies would likely be out, though the Braves could jump in with an offer to counter their division foes. The Astros would also remain on the periphery, though Keuchel would probably have to accept a shorter-term deal to return to Houston. The good news in that scenario? He wouldn't be subject to a qualifying offer when he returned to the free-agent market, having received one this winter from the Astros.
Kimbrel: As outlined earlier, the Red Sox and Braves would remain Kimbrel's most likely destinations if the Phillies sign either Machado or Harper.
IF MACHADO SIGNS WITH THE WHITE SOX ...
Harper: The Phillies, having missed out on Machado, would likely go all-in to sign Harper. Philly's offer could easily be the biggest out there for Harper, but it would be surprising if agent Scott Boras didn't give the Nationals one final chance to match or exceed it. Might the prospect of Harper joining an NL East rival be enough to get the Nationals to make another major financial commitment? With third baseman Anthony Rendon slated to become a free agent at the end of 2019, the decision could come down to which of the two players they prefer to ink long-term.
Keuchel/Kimbrel: Like nearly every other scenario, the Phillies' response would be the key. Philadelphia could make a run at Keuchel and/or Kimbrel (and Marwin Gonzalez, for that matter) if they chose not to meet Harper's price, though given how aggressive the Phillies have been, Harper would still figure to be their top choice. The Braves could be an option for either pitcher, while the Astros (Keuchel) and Red Sox (Kimbrel) could still bring back their former players, likely on shorter-term deals.
IF MACHADO SIGNS WITH THE PADRES ...
Harper: San Diego has been in on Harper as well, so while this would eliminate the Padres from his future, it would leave the Phillies and White Sox in a potential bidding war for his services. The Nationals would also still be in the mix, though Washington's involvement would again likely hinge on how aggressive the Phillies got in their pursuit of Harper.
Keuchel/Kimbrel: The best news for either of these pitchers would be Machado or Harper signing with the White Sox and the other landing with someone other than Philly. If the Phillies miss out on both stars, it could spark a chain reaction that could land Keuchel or Kimbrel -- or both -- in Philly.