Oops. Even as I was writing “Tanks, Damned Tanks, Dollars, and Nonsense,” in which I pondered the pros and cons teams might see in Manny Machado, Machado and the Padres dropped the big one. Ten years, $300 million, with a clause allowing Machado to opt out of the deal after five.
The Padres add a player who’s averaged almost five wins above a replacement level player a season for his first seven seasons and was worth 5.7 WAR in 2018. It’s only his fourth-highest single-season WAR, but it was his best season at the plate: he had his highest-ever single season on-base and slugging percentages, his highest-ever single-season OPS, and his best single season for creating runs with 120. His 191 runs produced in 2018 were ten above his career average per 162 games and tied his career best for a single season.
At age 25, Machado’s a year younger than Mike Trout, generally regarded as baseball’s greatest all-around player today, and a player who’s either going to extend with the Angels or test his own free agency waters after the 2020 season approaching age 28. And, yes, he’s signing the biggest contract ever for a baseball player, bigger than Alex Rodriguez’s $250 million.
But the Padres also add a player who has, like A-Rod though for different reasons, generated a little controversy during his career.
Bryce Harper has a reputation for being superstar caliber and not always fundamentally sound. Machado has one for being superstar caliber and not clean, whether it comes down to hustle or whether he plays the game crossing the line between hard nosed and plain dirty. If it’s not unseemly to crib from something I finished writing not half an hour before I sat down to write this, I’ll do it:
Harper at least has never spoken aloud of being a player who doesn’t always put his best effort forth. Machado has. Notoriously. As in, during the National League Championship Series, when he didn’t run a grounder out in Game Two, and slid so half competently in Game Three that one of the two slides helped make a double play against the Dodgers, then admitted to The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal, “Obviously I’m not going to change, I’m not the type of player that’s going to be ‘Johnny Hustle,’ and run down the line and slide to first base and . . . you know, whatever can happen. That’s just not my personality, that’s not my cup of tea, that’s not who I am.”
But Machado went further in the same interview: “Should I have given it a little more effort? One hundred percent. (It’s) my fault like always, I mean that’s just my mentality when I’m in the game. (There are) things that you learn, things that you gotta change. I’ve tried changing it for eight years and I still can’t figure it out but, one of these days I will.” To which Rosenthal added, “Some will see accountability in Machado’s words, viewing him a player who wants to do the right thing, but for whatever reason stumbles at certain times. Others will react to his, ‘I’m not ‘Johnny Hustle’ comment and lambaste him . . . considering anything less than maximum effort unacceptable. Still others might adopt an opinion somewhere in between, appreciating the nuance in Machado’s remarks.”
Those would be legitimate reasons for teams otherwise willing to show them the money to be slow if not hesitant to sign either Harper or Machado . . . And Machado is often seen as a player who crosses lines into dirty play often enough to provoke questions as to how that might translate in a new clubhouse.
Clearly, though, Machado enjoyed his time on the West Coast last season, where he played with the Dodgers and went to the World Series with them, following his mid-season trade from the Orioles. (There were those who thought Machado preferred to play somewhere reasonably closer to his Miami home.) With the Dodgers anticipating the return of shortstop Corey Seager this season, they had little to no place for him if they wanted to sign him on his own.
There were moments when it looked like the Phillies wanted Machado as badly as they’re believed to want Harper. There were moments when it looked like the White Sox wanted Machado badly enough that they sweetened the potential pot by adding his brother-in-law and a close friend or two.
And now comes a wrinkle: Former Yankee star Mark Teixiera, working now as an ESPN analyst, says no big market teams had offers on Machado’s table. Not even the Yankees, who’ve never been afraid to open the vault when there was a chance to land a Machado-type even if they’re not quite as profligate as they used to be when The Boss was still alive. Never mind that the White Sox aren’t a small market team, they only behave like one. And San Diego isn’t Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, or San Francisco.
You guessed it. The Padres, the smallish market Padres, whom some people thought were in the tank but who’ve actually been struggling to put a winner on their field, just showed Manny Machado the money you’d have expected only the big market boys and girls to show him. Who says the small market teams don’t have money to spend, stupid or otherwise?
With one stroke of his pen, Machado blows the argument that the smallish market teams don’t have the resources the big boys and girls have in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia (where the Phillies’ ownership has said they’re ready to spend “stupid money”—your move, Mr. Harper!), and even San Francisco right out of the ocean. You can just imagine the brass in places like Baltimore, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, Miami, Oakland, and Tampa Bay ready to measure Padres owner Ron Fowler for a noose, if not a guillotine.
Commissioner Rob Manfred thinks “the notion that payroll is a good measure for how much a team is trying or how successful that team is going to be.” Machado and the Padres say the first four words of the previous sentence are on the wrong side.
There’s no guarantee that spending, stupid money or otherwise, gets you to the Promised Land, if you define the Promised Land as not just playing October baseball but winning the World Series. The Yankees, after all, have gotten back to the Promised Land only once since Y2K, and they’re not exactly baseball’s skinflints. And there have been those who didn’t spend like assorted Congresses or assorted presidents but got to the Promised Land regardless, and more often than you think.
But when it comes to asking, “Do I have a better chance of getting to the Promised Land soon enough with spending big enough,” the Padres and their new have just sent the message that the answer fans of all smallish market teams would most like to hear from their teams is a resounding enough “Yes.”
The Padres weren’t thought to be entering 2019 as a great team or even a minimally good one. But Sam Miller of ESPN thinks they’re going to be better than advertised. “The Padres probably won’t be very good this year, but with the best current farm system in baseball they probably will be quite good in many of the next half-dozen years, and players like Manny Machado aren’t just freely available to pick up when a team decides to flip the switch and compete,” Miller writes. “They just got an MVP candidate for the middle of the lineup and all it cost them was money.”
“This gives San Diego’s entire rebuild a firm foundation,” says Miller’s fellow ESPN scribe Bradford Doolittle. “As big as the contract numbers are, it’s fair value for what Machado is likely to do in the future and because of his age and the length of his track record, the risk is comparatively low for deal this large.”
The deal does a few other favours around baseball. Since Machado isn’t going to the White Sox, the Indians can practically start pacing their players for another October run considering the weakness of the American League Central otherwise. The AL East has one less headache to worry about out of New York now that Machado won’t be wearing those Yankee pinstripes.
It may also do Harper a few favours. With Machado now getting the money he was projected to get when last season ended, and with Harper thought to be in line for similar money, Harper might just get it. Harper has the tools and the upside still, but at the same age with the same seven major league seasons Harper has averaged one less WAR per season. Harper has been more run productive per 162 games by eighteen over their careers, and he created one run less than Machado last year while using a few less outs to do it. Lifetime, Harper has 693 runs created using 2,524 outs to do it and Machado has 586 runs created using 2,845 outs to do it.
Those are striking enough differences in run production and run creation, which are the names of the game when you’re at the plate and on the bases. So what makes Machado the slightly better player? Harper’s defense in the outfield has receded considerably the last couple of years; Machado’s on the left side of the infield has been better. Machado doesn’t cost his teams quite as many runs in the field as Harper does, and Machado plays a tougher pair of defensive positions.
And before you begin to wonder whether Petco Park’s notoriety as a pitcher’s haven will suppress Machado’s bat, be reminded that a) Machado hits high drives when he connects right, which is very often; and, b) Petco Park is actually a lot friendlier to those whose natural high-drive power goes to left field, the seventh best such ballpark in the Show. And, as Eno Sarris of The Atlantic says, “Guess where Machado likes to hit his?”
Sarris also points out that adding Machado now gives the Padres almost the best infield in the league. “The ‘Fans’ projections on FanGraphs are almost always overly optimistic when you’re talking about a one-year projection, but when you’re talking about the upside that an infield like Machado, [Fernando] Tatís, [Jose] Urías and [Eric] Hosmer can produce, they can help. The fans say this group would produce 16+ wins together in full seasons this year. Only the Astros, Dodgers and Cubs are projected to produce more than 16 wins on the infield this year, and we haven’t added in any of the Padres’ depth pieces like [Ian] Kinsler.”
But Machado may have done more now than assure that Harper will be shown the money, give or take a few balloons, or that the Padres will win quite a bit more than projected this season. If the Machado deal begins the end of tanking as we know it, he and the Padres just did baseball and its fans one of the still-new century’s biggest favours yet.