Early splash, but big­gest guns still for hire

Ei­ther Machado, Harper could set con­tract his­tory

National Post (National Edition) - - SPORTS - Dave Sheinin

It takes a cer­tain re­solve to trade away the best po­si­tion player in your fran­chise’s his­tory, com­ing off a sea­son in which you con­tended un­til mid-Septem­ber, but that’s what the Ari­zona Di­a­mond­backs did Wed­nes­day in send­ing first base­man Paul Gold­schmidt to the St. Louis Car­di­nals for prospects and draft­picks.

It takes a cer­tain bold­ness to guar­an­tee six years and $140 mil­lion to a pitcher with one tran­scen­dent sea­son on his re­sume, but that’s what the Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als did in sign­ing lefty Pa­trick Corbin on Tues­day.

And it takes a cer­tain sus­pen­sion of dis­be­lief for a team com­ing off a fourth­place fin­ish to deal away the prospect it drafted with the sixth over­all pick just six months ear­lier — while com­mit­ting $63 mil­lion to an ag­ing sec­ond base­man com­ing off a drug sus­pen­sion — but that’s what the New York Mets did in pack­ag­ing out­field prospect Jarred Ke­lenic in the deal to land Robinson Cano and closer Ed­win Diaz from Seat­tle.

These are the days of bold moves and un­com­mon re­solve in base­ball, with teams in­creas­ingly di­vided into those in the midst of ex­treme re­builds and those com­mit­ted to win­ning now at all costs, a pivot from the days not too long ago when the vast ma­jor­ity of teams sat some­where in the mid­dle, of­ten too at­tached to their own prospects and too par­a­lyzed by fear of mak­ing a mas­sive mis­step.

“This or­ga­ni­za­tion,” Brodie Van Wa­ge­nen, the for­mer agent who be­came gen­eral man­ager of the Mets in Oc­to­ber, said this week af­ter giv­ing up three prospects for Cano and Diaz, “We (will) be relentless and fear­less in our pur­suit of great­ness.”

But as base­ball’s Win­ter Meet­ings ap­proach, Mon­day through Thurs­day, at the Man­dalay Bay Re­sort and Casino in Las Ve­gas, two of the big­gest, bold­est moves — the strong­est tests of or­ga­ni­za­tional re­solve — re­main out there to be made. De­spite a flurry of ac­tiv­ity in the past few days and weeks, the in­dus­try is still await­ing an­swers to the big ques­tions of this off-sea­son:

Who will sign free agent slug­gers Bryce Harper and Manny Machado? And will ei­ther or both of them shat­ter the record — cur­rently held by Gian­carlo Stan­ton, at $325 mil­lion US over 13 years — for the big­gest con­tract in base­ball his­tory? Harper, it is worth re­call­ing, has al­ready turned down a 10-year $300 mil­lion of­fer from the Na­tion­als.

While there are no in­di­ca­tions ei­ther player’s sit­u­a­tion is headed to a speedy res­o­lu­tion — and these days, many of the big­gest sign­ings get pushed well past New Year’s Day — the height­ened me­dia at­mos­phere and face-to-face na­ture of the Win­ter Meet­ings has a way of cre­at­ing sud­den, splashy deals, or at least ram­pant ru­mours.

That could be par­tic­u­larly true of Harper, the 26-yearold out­fielder who spent his first seven sea­sons with the Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als, and whose ini­tial dive into free agency is the most an­tic­i­pated since Alex Ro­driguez’s in 2000. Las Ve­gas, as surely ev­ery­one knows by now, hap­pens to be Harper’s home­town, and his agent, Scott Bo­ras (the same man who ne­go­ti­ated Ro­driguez’s record-set­ting $252 mil­lion with the Texas Rangers in De­cem­ber 2000), has set up meet­ings next week with in­ter­ested clubs at an undis- closed off-site lo­ca­tion.

Will the meet­ings con­clude with Harper on a news con­fer­ence stage pulling a jersey of his new team — Los An­ge­les Dodgers? Philadel­phia Phillies? New York Yan­kees? — over a suit and tie? Might it even be the same jersey he has al­ways worn, that of the Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als?

The sheer num­ber and mag­ni­tude of the moves al­ready made in Novem­ber and the first week of De­cem­ber has left the im­pres­sion most of the teams have al­ready done their heavy lift­ing for the win­ter. In the Na­tional League East alone, the Mets have traded for Cano and Diaz; the At­lanta Braves have signed vet­er­ans Josh Don­ald­son and Brian McCann; the Phillies traded for short­stop Jean Se­gura and the Na­tion­als have signed the top start­ing pitcher on the mar­ket, lefty Pa­trick Corbin, while also adding two catch­ers and two re­liev­ers.

Mean­time, the Mariners, de­spite con­tend­ing for a wild card well into Au­gust, have gone full re­build-mode, hav­ing al­ready traded Se­gura, Cano, Diaz, ace James Pax­ton (to the Yan­kees), catcher Mike Zunino (to Tampa Bay) and three re­liev­ers.

“This is what a re­set looks like,” Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto told re­porters.

But in re­al­ity, an un­usual flurry of early win­ter trade ac­tiv­ity has dis­guised an alarm­ing lack of move­ment on the free agent front — and has likely con­trib- uted to it. ESPN’s free agent tracker showed only 15 of an avail­able 153 play­ers hav­ing signed as of Thurs­day af­ter­noon, with only five of those be­ing multi-year deals. Only three of the top 40 free agents, as ranked by MLBTradeRu­mors.com, had been signed: Corbin, Nathan Eo­valdi (back to the Red Sox) and Don­ald­son. And Don­ald­son, a for­mer MVP com­ing off two in­jury-plagued sea­sons, had to set­tle for a one-year deal from At­lanta.

There is lit­tle ques­tion the thriv­ing trade mar­ket has dam­aged the free agent mar­ket — just as it did a year ago when the Mi­ami Mar­lins jet­ti­soned Stan­ton, Chris­tian Yelich and Mar­cell Ozuna — and will con­tinue to pro­vide an at­trac­tive al­ter­na­tive for teams look­ing for high-end tal­ent. That is es­pe­cially true of start­ing pitch­ing, with Madi­son Bum­gar­ner (San Fran­cisco Gi­ants), Corey Klu­ber (Cleve­land In­di­ans) and Zack Greinke (Di­a­mond­backs) known to be avail­able.

When they even­tu­ally sign, Harper and Machado will un­doubt­edly push the to­tal ex­pen­di­tures for this year’s class into the strato­sphere, but for the bulk of this win­ter’s free agents — the glut of solid, ser­vice­able, 30-ish play­ers look­ing for new homes — the grim re­al­ity is likely to be the same as was for last win­ter’s class.

At the top end, the per­cep­tion per­sists that the Phillies are driv­ing the mar­ket, a no­tion they are not even try­ing to hide, with owner John Mid­dle­ton last month telling USA To­day he is ready to spend, and may “be a lit­tle stupid” in do­ing so. Hav­ing stream­lined their roster in re­cent years in an­tic­i­pa­tion of this win­ter, they ap­pear poised to sign ei­ther Harper or Machado — their pref­er­ence, though, is a closely guarded se­cret — with some still spec­u­lat­ing they could make a play for both. (They also were known to covet Corbin, be­fore the Na­tion­als got him by of­fer­ing the sixth guar­an­teed year.)

The Yan­kees, mean­time, are an­other log­i­cal land­ing spot for one of the prized pair, and Machado — who can play short­stop un­til Didi Gre­go­rius re­turns from surgery, then slide to third base — would seem to be the bet­ter fit.

Given the Yan­kees’ pro­fessed need for an­other start­ing pitcher — lefty J.A. Happ is a log­i­cal tar­get — it’s un­clear whether they can also add Machado, or if they even want to.

“It’s a de­ci­sion (own­er­ship) ul­ti­mately will make when they’re forced to make it,” GM Brian Cash­man told re­porters this week of the de­ci­sion to push the pay­roll past the thresh­old. “It’s my job to col­lect as much tal­ent as I pos­si­bly can in a very cost-ef­fec­tive man­ner, and hope­fully I can do that and not have to (pay) lux­ury taxes.”

If the Yan­kees are truly out — and let’s be hon­est: who re­ally be­lieves that? — the rest of the land­scape for Harper and Machado is less de­fined. The Chicago Cubs seem dis­in­clined to spend at that level, and the Dodgers, at least un­der An­drew Friedman, never have. The Gi­ants have yet to sig­nal a strat­egy un­der new GM Farhan Zaidi. The Car­di­nals seem to have solved their need for a mid­dle-of-the-or­der bat by trad­ing for Gold­schmidt. The Hous­ton Astros tried to trade for Harper in Au­gust, but have big­ger needs.

Some­where out there, how­ever, is a team, or teams, ready to make the next bold move in a win­ter al­ready full of them.

With the Win­ter Meet­ings headed to Bryce Harper’s home­town, and the num­bers ex­pected to climb to a place where only a hand­ful of teams can com­pete, it’s now only a mat­ter of time.

KEVORK DJANSEZIAN / GETTY IM­AGES FILES

Manny Machado, who played the sec­ond half of last sea­son with the Los An­ge­les Dodgers, fig­ures to gen­er­ate plenty of in­ter­est among suit­ors.

PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS / THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILES

Al­ready mak­ing a big free-agent deal, the Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als signed Pa­trick Corbin to a six-year pact worth $140 mil­lion. Will they try to bring back Bryce Harper, too?

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