A version of this story first appeared on MLB.com on Jan. 3.
There's a reason why Manny Machado's free agency was one of the most anticipated in recent memory and continued to generate furious speculation until Tuesday. That's when the All-Star infielder finally came off the board, with MLB.com's Mark Feinsand reporting -- citing a league source -- that Machado agreed to a 10-year, $300 million deal with the Padres.
Few players in the world are as skilled defensively at both shortstop and third base -- two of the most difficult positions on the diamond. At the plate, no hitter has put more hard-hit balls in play (a skill in which Machado is still improving), and only 21 players have matched his 128 league-adjusted wRC+ over the past four seasons. And oh, by the way, Machado is just now entering his age-26 season.
That's all the ingredients of an in-his-prime, top-of-the-line superstar, so it makes sense that Machado was able to top Alex Rodriguez's industry benchmark of 10 years and $275 million for a free agent -- and approach Giancarlo Stanton's $325 million extension with the Marlins, too.
While there's probably not a dead ringer for Machado in baseball history, MLB.com's senior data architect Tom Tango ran through the superstar's numbers thus far and attempted to find comparable players through this stage of Machado's career. For this exercise, Tango looked at players who lined up with Machado at age 26 in both their wins above replacement (WAR) progression over their prior four years (so in this case, five-plus WAR in their most recent season, nine-plus WAR over their two most recent seasons, 12-plus WAR over their last three seasons and 14-plus WAR over their last four seasons) and a weighted WAR close to Machado's 5.2 total in 2018. That process revealed the following list of 15 players, including some names you might have guessed, and some you might not:
It's a list that includes three Hall of Famers, and three more who could conceivably get into the Hall at some point in Beltran, Ramirez and Rolen. But there's also a few examples that Machado hopes to steer clear of, too. So, let's cull three of the best- and worst-case scenarios for the team that ultimately claims Machado for the foreseeable future.
Ramirez, like Machado, was already a terrific hitter through the first half of his twenties, averaging 30 homers and 102 RBIs over his first three full-time seasons with the Indians. But if Machado elevates to Ramirez's historic level over the ensuing years, his next club is in for a huge windfall. Over the 10 years from Ramirez's age-26 season in 1998 to his last full-time Red Sox campaign in 2007, the slugger saw his OPS fall below .900 just once while ranking in the following slots among his peers with at least 5,000 plate appearances in that span:
HR: 381 (fourth)
RBI: 1,232 (second)
BA: .316 (fifth)
OPS+: 160 (second)
Ramirez's pair of suspensions for performance-enhancing drugs must be mentioned, of course, but it's hard to argue against him being one of the more talented hitters to ever bring a bat to home plate. Machado might not be at that level -- yet -- but Ramirez sure represents a dream result for potential suitors. Plus, Machado is likely to contribute far, far more on the defensive side than Ramirez.
If Machado -- who was four years younger than Larkin when he broke into the Majors -- can remain excellent into his mid-30s like his closest shortstop comparable, we're going to be talking about a very special career. Larkin helped the Reds win the 1990 World Series at age 26 and only got better from there, boosting his slugging by over 100 points the following year and morphing into the all-around star that captured the '95 National League MVP at age 31. The first six years of Larkin's 30s also included five All-Star selections, three Gold Glove Awards and four Silver Sluggers, with an overall slash line of .301/.397/.480 for a 127 OPS+. Though Larkin dealt with an assortment of injuries over the back half of his career, the Hall of Famer's 5.3 WAR annual average from ages 26-35 is certainly a great target for Machado to shoot for.
Williams didn't see all that much of the national spotlight playing for the woebegone Cubs, but his incredible consistency made him a Hall of Famer. Williams (124 OPS+) was not that far off from Machado (128) as a hitter from ages 23-25, though Machado was a much better defender at a more premium position. But Williams took off over the next five seasons (139 OPS+, 5.3 WAR) and went on to finish runner-up twice in NL MVP voting, including in 1972 when he paced the Senior Circuit in average (.333), slugging (.606) and total bases (348) at age 34.
In fact, Williams compiled the same 139 OPS+ from his age-26-through-29 seasons as he did from ages 30-35. If Machado can stay that consistent over the next decade, that's a scary thought for the rest of the league.
Versalles put up a career year in his age-25 season, capturing the 1965 AL MVP with league-leading totals in runs, doubles, triples and total bases while helping the Twins claim the pennant. Minnesota rewarded Versalles with a raise, but unfortunately his career immediately took a turn for the worse, beginning with an 83 OPS+ in '66. Versalles kept struggling at the plate from there, which only accentuated his league-leading error totals at shortstop. The Twins traded Versalles to the Dodgers after the '67 campaign, and he was a part-time player by the following year before hanging up his spikes at age 31.
Lezcano broke in early like Machado, and like Versalles he peaked at age 25 when he slashed .321/.414/.573 with 28 home runs and captured his only Gold Glove in right field. But Lezcano struggled to maintain that level over the ensuing years while he was involved in both the Rollie Fingers trade (which sent Lezcano to St. Louis) and the Ozzie Smith trade (which sent him to San Diego). The Puerto Rico native enjoyed a 6-WAR resurgence with the Padres in 1982, but eventually lost his right-field job to Tony Gwynn.
Chavez was a similar two-way dual threat like Machado at third base, and like our other two worst-case scenarios he was at the peak in his age-26 season, when he posted a 134 OPS+ and claimed his fourth straight Gold Glove. This is really just a case of Machado hoping to avoid Chavez's unfortunate run-in with injuries, as the Oakland star topped 100 games in just one season from age 29 through his retirement at 36. Though Chavez can still boast an accomplished career and plenty of adoration in the Bay Area, that much time off the diamond would be disastrous for the club that could potentially make Machado the richest player in baseball history.