In camps across the state of Florida, spring training opened with players frustrated by the slow-moving free agent market that left some of the game’s top players without jobs. And their bitterness is justified by the fact that full-squad workouts commenced without generational talents like Manny Machado and Bryce Harper participating in them.
Then came news that Machado agreed to terms on the richest free-agent deal in history: a 10-year, $300-million deal with the San Diego Padres. It’s a team that initially wasn’t in the mix for Machado through a slow offseason and realistically isn’t ready to contend.
Harper is still out there, but appears to be closing in on a deal with the Phillies that could trump Machado’s $30-million-a-year average salary. After seeing Machado’s payday, some suggest super-agent Scott Boras will up the ante for his client in order to definitively win the pay race.
Just a few days ago, commissioner Rob Manfred stood defiantly and said that fans need to understand that teams are building their rosters a different way, and the design has less to do with spending large sums of money in free agency and more to do with investing in home-grown talent and keeping players they can control for multiple seasons.
Manfred also said creating megadeal expectations and talk of $400 million contracts for Machado and Harper wasn’t good for the game. Though this was expected, because it’s rare that two 26-year-old players, like Machado and Harper, reach free agency at the age of 26.
Neither player will get that $400 million, but both players will receive the historic long-term deals they anticipated. Machado’s deal topped the $10-year, $275-million deal Alex Rodriguez signed with the Yankees as the largest contract signed by a free agent.
The commissioner slightly changed his tune, telling reporters in Arizona that a potential deal between Machado and the Padres is "a great thing."
"I think it's good for baseball to have big stars present in some of our smaller markets," Manfred said at the Cactus League spring training media day.
Ultimately, Machado decided a precedent-setting contract was more important than playing for a contender. While dedicating your future to the San Diego sun seams appealing, the Padres are coming off a 66-win season. Few fans can name any of their starting pitchers, and while San Diego has a promising farm system, the Padres are, in a best-case scenario, a few years away from contending.
Machado could have joined a contender with the Phillies. He could have played with his brother-in-law Yonder Alonso and close friend Jon Jay with the White Sox. The Yankees, a team Machado was enamored with, were always in play, but the Yanks didn’t want to overspend.
Want more than just the box score?
Subscribe to our free Rays Report newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
The Padres could expect a slight spike in attendance. They ranked 19th in attendance last season, but given their market, any increase likely will be nominal. Few will opt for Machado over Coronado.
And no matter the talent, one great player does not make a great team. Remember that before he was traded to the Dodgers, Machado had the best start of his career but the Orioles still finished as baseball’s worst team.
In seeking a franchise cornerstone, a young team like the Padres should pursue a player who possesses intangibles that make his teammates better. While Machado is one of the most talented players of this era, he hasn’t shown that ability.
While Machado and Harper will land on their feet — and there never really was reason to pity them — it doesn’t take away from baseball’s growing problems of dwindling attendance, a lack of fan interest and growing animosity between the owners and players.
Machado signing with the San Diego Padres does nothing to help that. He was going to get his money. Meanwhile, other players with less prestige still sit at home and watch, hoping to get a sliver of a $300-million payday. San Diego’s signing should help move the market, but the free agency dream really no longer exists for most players not named Manny Machado or Bryce Harper.
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @EddieInTheYard.