They’re caught in bear mar­ket

Harper, Machado and sev­eral other stars re­main free agents. What’s go­ing on?


Nei­ther Bryce Harper nor Manny Machado plies his trade as a pitcher or a catcher, so this week’s mile­stone is im­pre­cise but still significant. As bat­tery mates re­port to Ari­zona and Florida dur­ing the next few days, to be fol­lowed by the rest of the ros­ters next week, the cen­tral mys­tery of this bleak base­ball off­sea­son re­mains un­solved. Nei­ther Harper nor Machado has found a home for the 2019 sea­son, and nei­ther ap­pears par­tic­u­larly close to find­ing one.

The same can be said for Cy Young Award win­ner Dal­las Keuchel, seven-time All-Star closer Craig Kim­brel, five-time All-Star

out­fielder Adam Jones, twotime All-Star third base­man Mike Mous­takas and dozens of other qual­i­fied ma­jor league play­ers. Yet, Harper and Machado were sup­posed to be dif­fer­ent, the two-man tan­dem ex­pected to thaw the spend­ing freeze that has over­taken the sport in the last three years.

“What team out there wouldn’t want a Bryce Harper, a Manny Machado or a lot of the free agents out there?” San Fran­cisco Gi­ants catcher Buster Posey said at the team’s re­cent FanFest in San Fran­cisco.

Harper, 26, was the 2015 Na­tional League most valu­able player and is a six-time All-Star. Machado, 26, is a four-time All-Star who hit 37 home runs in 2018 and can play short­stop or third base.

The an­swer to Posey’s ques­tion, it turns out, is the over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of the in­dus­try, at least not at the prices the play­ers de­sire and that prece­dent sug­gests they de­serve. Harper and Machado aimed to ex­ceed the $325-mil­lion deal handed to Gian­carlo Stan­ton by the Mi­ami Mar­lins in 2014. Nei­ther may reach that mark.

Posey was asked about Harper be­cause the Gi­ants met with Harper in Las Ve­gas last week. The meet­ing leaked be­cause Larry Baer, the Gi­ants’ chief ex­ec­u­tive, took a pho­to­graph with a fan in­side the Bel­la­gio and “it’s kind of hard to deny when your CEO gets made in the casino,” said Farhan Zaidi, the team’s pres­i­dent of base­ball op­er­a­tions. And the meet­ing hap­pened only be­cause Harper was un­signed in Fe­bru­ary, which pre­sented an op­por­tu­nity for the bar­gain-seek­ing Zaidi and the deep-pock­eted Gi­ants.

San Fran­cisco can af­ford Harper. The team has spent a rel­a­tive pit­tance, about $8.5 mil­lion, on ma­jor league free agents this off­sea­son. That puts the Gi­ants in line with the over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of the in­dus­try. Only seven teams have spent more than $50 mil­lion on big league free agents: the Dodgers, the Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als, the New York Yan­kees, the New York Mets, the Philadel­phia Phillies, the Bos­ton Red Sox and the Texas Rangers.

Which begs the ques­tion: What is the rest of the sport do­ing?

Free agency is not the only way to improve a ros­ter. The Cincin­nati Reds im­proved their team through trades, ac­quir­ing Yasiel Puig, Alex Wood and Matt Kemp from the Dodgers and swing­ing a deal with the Yan­kees for All-Star pitcher Sonny Gray. The St. Louis Car­di­nals net­ted star first base­man Paul Gold­schmidt from the Ari­zona Di­a­mond­backs. As the Seat­tle Mariners tore down their ros­ter, the Mets grabbed closer Ed­win Diaz and sec­ond base­man Robinson Cano, and the Yan­kees aug­mented their start­ing ro­ta­tion with James Pax­ton.

All those trades cost teams as­sets in the form of prospects. To sign a free agent re­quires only money. In 2013, the Red Sox rose from a last-place fin­ish the year be­fore to a cham­pi­onship af­ter sign­ing seven free agents. That ap­proach feels like a relic from an­other life­time, rather than a strat­egy em­ployed by a World Se­ries win­ner this decade.

The con­cept of try­ing to spend to vault into play­off con­tention has fallen out of fa­vor with this gen­er­a­tion of risk-averse, depth-con­scious ex­ec­u­tives. So Zaidi has fo­cused on the lower tier of the 40-man ros­ter in his first off­sea­son run­ning the Gi­ants. The Mariners and Di­a­mond­backs joined the Mar­lins among the ranks of teams sell­ing off cru­cial as­sets. The Chicago White Sox have en­gaged with Machado, but have not con­vinced him to sign. The San Diego Padres con­tinue to kick the can down the road in their per­pet­ual re­build.

Even for teams with Oc­to­ber hopes, free agency now serves as a ve­hi­cle for aug­ment­ing a ros­ter in­stead of re­shap­ing it. So Mil­wau­kee signed for­mer Dodgers catcher Yas­mani Gran­dal and other­wise stood pat. The same goes for Colorado and in­fielder Daniel Mur­phy, Hous­ton and out­fielder Michael Brant­ley, and At­lanta and third base­man Josh Don­ald­son.

None of those play­ers re­ceived longer than a twoyear con­tract. Teams are will­ing to spend, but on their terms. The Yan­kees have flirted with Machado, while still dol­ing out nearly $140 mil­lion on the mar­ket to play­ers such as re­liever Zach Brit­ton and sec­ond base­man DJ LeMahieu. The Phillies struck a deal for Mar­lins catcher J.T. Real­muto last week, and have stayed en­gaged on Harper and Machado. But that didn’t stop them from sign­ing out­fielder An­drew McCutchen and trad­ing for short­stop Jean Se­gura. The Dodgers opted for out­fielder A.J. Pol­lock at $55 mil­lion rather than a nine-fig­ure commitment to Harper.

Fans in New York, Philadel­phia and Los An­ge­les may clamor for star power. But at least their teams made an ef­fort to improve. More trou­bling is the be­hav­ior of the Chicago Cubs, who have sat out of the free-agent mar­ket af­ter a se­ries of ex­pen­sive misses. Ja­son Hey­ward has been an of­fen­sive li­a­bil­ity through the first three sea­sons of his eightyear, $184-mil­lion deal. Yu Darvish made eight starts in the first year of his six-year, $126-mil­lion deal. And the avail­abil­ity of re­liever Bran­don Mor­row, signed last off­sea­son to be the team’s closer, is un­cer­tain as the spring be­gins.

The open­ing of spring train­ing usu­ally serves as a metaphor for re­newal. Yet, this year it will func­tion more as a re­minder that the two bright­est lights on the free-agent mar­ket have not yet found em­ploy­ment, and the in­dus­try is not ex­actly clam­or­ing to change that.

Allen J. Sch­aben Los An­ge­les Times

AF­TER MUCH an­tic­i­pa­tion on the Manny Machado free-agent sweep­stakes, the in­fielder re­mains un­signed as clubs pre­pare to get spring train­ing un­der­way.

Alex Bran­don As­so­ci­ated Press

WITH ONLY a few days left be­fore spring-train­ing camps open, out­fielder Bryce Harper is still un­at­tached.

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