How Manny Machado and Bryce Harper help the Rays in the short term, and really hurt down the road

Why what's happening with Machado, Harper and baseball's 2019 free-agent market will hurt the Rays in the long run.
Manny Machado, left, and Bryce Harper, right. [AP photos]
Manny Machado, left, and Bryce Harper, right. [AP photos]
Published January 14
Updated January 14

ST. PETERSBURG — They sit like twin idols on baseball's clearance rack. Two generational players still waiting for the rush of shoppers they were certain would want to purchase their services.

It's been 77 days since Manny Machado and Bryce Harper hit the open market, and still, no team has blown them away with a contract offer.

Undoubtedly, they are going to get paid, and quite lavishly too. But the muted response to their availability is just one more clue that the lords of baseball have finally become mindful of some simple economic truths.

And that is bad, bad news for the Tampa Bay Rays.

You know, there was a time when the Rays were the envy of every owner in Major League Baseball. From 2008-13, they had the second-most wins in the game and they did it at a fraction of the going cost.

How? By being more analytical and less enthralled by headlines. Other teams chased big names at a big cost. The Rays found lots of undervalued talent to create a greater whole.

That meant every time the Yankees would give a $153-million deal to Jacoby Ellsbury or the Orioles would invest $161 million in Chris Davis, the Rays would eventually come out ahead. Other teams were stuck with bad investments while Tampa Bay maintained flexibility even with a minuscule payroll.

Of course, it wasn't long before the rest of the league took notice and big-market teams began using some of the same cost-analysis techniques as the Rays.

The sport has gone from employing GMs who would build teams like kids with baseball cards, to hiring more Wall Street-minded executives revolutionized by the Rays.

And that leads to winters such as this.

Where one of the best catchers in baseball (Yasmani Grandal), a former MVP (Josh Donaldson) and a DH who has averaged more than 40 homers a year since 2014 (Nelson Cruz) all got one-year deals. And where Harper, Machado, Dallas Keuchel, A.J. Pollock and Craig Kimbrell are still unsigned in mid-January.

Just a few years ago, in the winter of 2015-16, there were 11 players who commanded multi-year deals in excess of $75 million. This year, there will likely be 3 or 4.

Can you imagine 2015 free agents such as Wei-Yin Chen (5 years, $80 million) Mike Leake (5 years, $75 million), Ian Kennedy (5 years, $70 million) Jordan Zimmermann (5 years, $110 million) or Jason Heyward (8 years, $184 million) getting deals anywhere close to that in 2019?

So what does it all mean for the Rays?

In the short term, there is actually a benefit. With teams no longer throwing around so much crazy money, it has brought the market back within reach of low-revenue teams.

The Rays made their biggest free agent signing in years when starting pitcher Charlie Morton agreed to a two-year, $30 million deal last month. And they're not done shopping.

They'll likely pick up an arm for the bullpen and signed former White Sox All-Star outfielder Avisail Garcia on Monday. Garcia is another example of the game's economic realities smacking a hitter in the face.

At this time last year, Garcia was coming off a season where he finished second in the American League in hitting at .330. He was awarded a $6.7 million salary in arbitration and looked like he would be in line for a hefty contract when he hit free agency in 2020.

Except knee and hamstring injuries limited his playing time and his batting average dropped nearly .100 points. Interestingly, though, his percentage of hard-hit balls went from 35.3 percent to 38.2.

But because he could have commanded as much as $8 million in arbitration, the White Sox cut him loose with no compensation. And that means the Rays get a former All-Star at age 27 for a $3.5 million base salary.

All of this might make for a more competitive Tampa Bay team in 2019, but it makes the future more challenging. If some of the big boys — the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers, Cubs — are doing a better job of maximizing their payroll, the odds will drop for teams like the Rays.

It doesn't make success impossible, but it will require finding new market inefficiencies or discovering innovations that compensate for the lack of spending ability.

Manny Machado and Bryce Harper are not the only ones who have to be concerned about this new economic landscape.

Contact John Romano at Follow @romano_tbtimes