The 2018-2019 offseason has been glacial, and not just in the sense that the relationships between players and owners are collapsing and there’s chaos just around the corner.
More than capable major league players are sitting on the market untouched and even unconsidered. Contending teams are openly admitting they don’t plan on spending money. And two of the league’s best players – neither of whom has hit the prime of his career – have yet to be scooped up.
Things may be heading toward a breaking point, though. Reports broke on both Bryce Harper and Manny Machado Sunday, with rumors out of Philadelphia suggesting that the Phillies feel increasingly optimistic about their chances with the star outfielder. As for Machado, the Chicago White Sox have been open about their pursuit of the superstar infielder, signing players to whom he is close and reportedly offering a seven-year deal worth $175 million – that’s $25 million every year, for those who don’t want to do the math.
It’s still hard to see things wrapping up quickly, however. Machado and Harper are two of the sport’s youngest, brightest stars and to think they would jump at the first serious offer for their services seems far-fetched. We know both of them will get big contracts, and we seem to know that the Phillies will provide one of them. Past that, it’s still anyone’s guess.
Much of the angst brewing amongst Cardinal fans this winter has been centered around the front office’s unwillingness to pursue Bryce Harper. It makes a lot of sense: the Cardinals’ biggest question mark remains in right field, where their best hope is either a resurgent Dexter Fowler or an ascendent Tyler O’Neill. Acquiring Harper for nothing more than money would secure a major star talent for the coming decade and vault the Cardinals into pole position in the National League Central – in 2019 and beyond.
It seems odd, however, that there hasn’t been clamoring for the Cardinals to get involved with Manny Machado, the other top-tier free agent on the market. Many of the same frustrations that surround Bryce Harper’s free agency could apply to Machado as well.
“The front office is being cheap.” This is a fair assessment to make, especially considering the Cardinals’ payroll averages over the past decade. By all accounts, Machado might cost less than Harper, too. Several reports have pegged his offers at closer to $200 million than $300 million, a cut below where Harper’s offers stand ($300 million and above.) Considering he has topped six fWAR in three of the past five seasons, Machado would already be a steal at the latter number. A contract of 10 years and something like $275 million may put the Cardinals at the front of sweepstakes for a generational talent (not to mention one who has been more consistent than his free agent counterpart.)
“He would be an obvious upgrade.” While it’s not as clear-cut as the situation in right field, putting Machado on the infield would still represent an upgrade for the Cardinals lineup. Just one year older than DeJong, Machado has already logged four injury-free seasons in the majors, not playing fewer than 156 games since 2014. By comparison, DeJong has averaged about 110 games in his two major league seasons, and is coming off a hand injury that zapped much of his offensive potency in the 2018 season. And while DeJong has flashed power and a plus glove at shortstop, Machado would still be an upgrade offensively (120 to 111 in career wRC+.) If he could eventually be talked into sticking at third base, Machado would also represent a boost defensively, where he offers a career 10.5 UZR/150.
“He fits a need.” This… is a murkier situation. The Cardinals have already locked up DeJong through 2023 – at an exceedingly team-friendly rate – and have Matt Carpenter under control for at least one more year (two if they exercise his 2020 option.) Carpenter has been the franchise’s most consistent offensive performer since 2013, and DeJong represents one of the young core members the Cardinals are hoping to carry through the next half decade.
This shouldn’t deter them, however, from jumping on a rare opportunity. Yes, Machado would represent a luxury – he’s a right-handed power bat in a lineup that needs more left-handed production. At best, he offers a marginal decrease in defensive production. But as previously noted, it would still be a clear upgrade. Steamer projects Machado to be worth 5.2 fWAR in 2019 – Carpenter and DeJong are projected for 3.4 and 3.2 fWAR, respectively. Projections aren’t everything, but to deny that Machado is a markedly better player than Carpenter or DeJong would be short-sighted.
Obviously, fitting Machado onto the Cardinals roster wouldn’t be easy and would require some maneuvering from a front office that seems allergic to the kill shot. His two best positional fits, third base and shortstop, are already occupied, and the trade for Paul Goldschmidt met the organization’s stated offseason goal of adding a middle-of-the-order bat. Paul DeJong is entering the second year of a deal that is sure to net surplus value through 2023. Matt Carpenter is a team and fan favorite.
However, there are still more than enough reasons to question why the Cardinals don’t seem more interested in Machado, a player who could become a franchise cornerstone for the next decade. Bryce Harper may be the more obvious candidate, but Machado would be quite the consolation.