When the off-season began, no one thought Bryce Harper and Manny Machado would still be unsigned as spring training opened. Surely the Phillies would have offered the type of deal either player would have jumped at long before pitchers and catchers reported to Clearwater, and Phils fans would have spent a fun off-season talking about all the brand new toys general manager Matt Klentak piled up in the home team’s clubhouse.
But here we sit, on Valentine’s Day, 2019, and Harper and Machado are still unsigned. Not only that, the second-best starting pitcher on the free agent market, Dallas Keuchel, the best closer, Craig Kimbrel, and two of the best utility men, Marwin Gonzalez and Josh Harrison, are also still up for grabs. This has been an even more bizarre off-season than last year, mainly because it was assumed two generational talents in their mid-20s would have been snapped up.
But they remain tantalizingly hanging on the vines. And the lure of that prized fruit has made everything else the Phillies have done this off-season taste a little less special.
There’s no doubt that, in any other normal off-season, the winter that Klentak and Co. has had would be lauded by the fanbase. The Phillies have improved themselves quite a bit with the trades of J.T. Realmuto and Jean Segura, the free agent signings of David Robertson and Andrew McCutchen, and the contract extension to Aaron Nola. The Phils are much better and, as currently constructed, will be a better team in 2019 than they were last year.
But without one of the big fish in the boat, it feels like the entire catch up to this point has been disappointing.
This whole process has become annoying and stressful and taken the joy out of the entire process. Certainly, it’s not the Phillies’ goal to make this whole thing fun for us, their job is to get the player they want at the price they want. Nevertheless, this hasn’t been a joyride, and it has taken the fun out of much of this off-season.
At a news conference with Nola announcing the young hurler’s extension, Klentak was asked about the team’s pursuit of Macharper and what it means to the narrative surrounding his off-season accomplishments.
Matt Klentak, with owner John Middleton seated in back of room and with the caveat that #Phillies are very much still in pursuit of Harper & Machado: "The notion that we hear that if we fail to sign a big free agent that it's a failure of an offseason, I don't agree with that."— Scott Lauber (@ScottLauber) February 14, 2019
This is what you would expect Klentak to say, and if one is just talking about year-over-year improvement, he’s right. Adding this caliber of talent and locking up the team’s most important player would be a successful off-season.
But no Machado and no Harper makes for a crushing disappointment and would, in the eyes of most fans, submarine all the good work that has been done up to this point.
On Episode 258 of “Hittin’ Season” with The Athletic’s Meghan Montemurro, I argued that there is one person in this whole ordeal that should make you feel good about the Phils’ chances of landing Harper — his agent Scott Boras.
The whole reason Bryce Harper picked Boras to be his agent wasn’t so that Boras could find a nice home on the west coast for Harper to live so that he could be close to his hometown of Las Vegas. Harper didn’t pick Boras so that Boras could work out a cheaper deal for fewer years just so Harper could play in a city he thinks is prettier or has nicer sushi.
The reason a big league ballplayer hires Scott Boras, one who is the face of the sport and is likely setting himself up for the biggest payday of his life, is so that Boras can get that player the most money possible.
Certainly, quality of life factors into any decision, but if one is comparing a potential World Series team like the Phillies, a team that is likely offering more in terms of years and total money and plays in a ballpark that will only help Harper’s quest to win MVP awards and one day make the Hall of Fame, to the San Francisco Giants, a declining team with no postseason aspirations, a ballpark that kills left-handed power hitters and one that is likely to offer fewers years and dollars than the Phils, it seems pretty clear which direction Boras is going to push his young client.
Harper’s flirtation with the Giants and Padres is likely just an attempt by Boras to get the Phillies to increase their offer, and Klentak should probably go ahead and do it, if also to fend off any last minute push by Harper’s old team, the Washington Nationals.
Last year, Boras held out as long as he could with prized free agent J.D. Martinez but ultimately, on February 20, agreed to a five-year, $110 million deal with the Red Sox, which to that point had been the only team prepared to show the slugging DH that kind of commitment in years and dollars. This year, there are more teams in on Harper with varying degrees of interest, but it was at this point last year when Boras cut his losses and did the deal with Boston.
Certainly, the Phillies could continue to hope that their offer, whatever it is, is good enough to convince Harper to play in Philadelphia and end all this soon. Or, they could just make the Godfather offer and leave no doubt.
Whatever happens, this off-season will be defined by whether they land Bryce Harper or Manny Machado, no matter what anyone else may say.