Free agency in Major League Baseball has been something of a mixed bag in recent years. Already lacking in the excitement and “frenzy” that their professional counterparts experience, MLB free agency itself has been wrought with accusations of collusion and its association with service time manipulation. There are a number of issues, certainly. At the same time, the game’s biggest stars have largely received their justified payday once they hit, or get close to, the open market.
As many issues exist with Major League Baseball’s current pay structure, there have been some player-friendly avenues. Recent years have seen an influx of decade-plus-long contracts. Some of them have come as part of extensions, while others have come immediately following a trade. Mike Trout fits the former. Francisco Lindor was of the latter. Others, like our dual focus here, have come on the open market.
On the other end of the spectrum, there’s Carlos Correa’s deal with the Minnesota Twins. A three-year pact became extremely player-friendly when it offered opt-outs after each season. Though a lesser caliber player, we saw something similar with Nick Martinez and the San Diego Padres. His contract offers opt-outs after all four seasons of the deal.
That’s a fairly oversimplified explanation of an extremely complex aspect of the business of baseball. Or at least MLB baseball. But while the issues exist, there’s been some well-earned compensation for some of the more notable players across the major league landscape. Nonetheless, the focus here is on two of those “lifetime” type deals: those awarded to Manny Machado and Bryce Harper.
Machado and Harper hit the market in the winter of 2018-19. A strong class that also featured the likes of then-effective Patrick Corbin and Craig Kimbrel (who had to wait until the summer for his own contract), Harper and Machado were the pillars of the group. Neither one signed prior to the start of spring training that year. Machado signed on with the Padres at the end of February and showed up on a rainy day in Peoria. Harper signed with the Philadelphia Phillies in early March and held his press conference in Clearwater (or Clearwooder, depending on your preferred pronunciation).
For Machado, he signed a 10-year deal worth $300 million. He’ll be a free agent again when he’s 37. Harper was able to exceed that to the tune of 13 years and $330 million. He’ll be about 40 by the time his contract runs out. Those contracts set something of a precedent for the type of deals we’ve seen handed out recently. Corey Seager’s with Texas, Lindor’s with the Mets, Mike Trout’s extension with Los Angeles, Machado’s teammate Fernando Tatis Jr., etc. We’ve seen others aiming for that type of deal, as well. Whether it comes in the form of a free agent deal or an extension, there’s a clear benchmark that MLB’s stars are trying to hit once they have the opportunity to do so.
The benchmark is important, no doubt. The market is such that stars that are nearing the end of a deal or have the opportunity to seek one as a free agent are in search of that lifetime deal. But a perhaps overlooked aspect of both the Machado and Harper deals is how much they’ve meant to their respective teams. Especially given the relative backlash that such a lucrative pact generated from casual fans.
While it was Eric Hosmer’s massive contract that made San Diego a more notable destination, Machado’s contract genuinely revived interest in baseball in America’s Finest City*. His opening season wasn’t his finest hour by his own standards, though.
Machado reached just 2.2 fWAR, had a 109 wRC+, and fell on the negative side of most defensive metrics. This came on the heels of a 7.0 fWAR season split between Baltimore and Los Angeles in 2018. Since then, he’s returned to the lofty standards that we expect of him. He was at 2.6 and a wRC+ of 150 in the shortened second season. His ISO was a career-best .277. The 2021 season didn’t have quite the same power, but it was still a strong 4.2 fWAR season in which he played strong defense and was a well-above-average offensive player (122 wRC+).
This season, however, has been what we came to know and expect from Machado during his years in Baltimore. He legitimately might be the front runner for NL MVP, having accrued 3.5 fWAR already, a 193 wRC+, a bounce-back in the power game (.233 ISO), and the highest walk rate of his career (11.3 percent). That improved BB% comes while whiffing at a rate tied with the lowest of his career. He’s 92nd percentile in HardHit% and 91st in expected batting average (xBA). He’s been a monster in every aspect of the game. For a Padres team that has started strong — and is looking to sweat out the remainder of their disappointing 2021 — he’s been their most important player.
The City of Bryce-erly Love
Bryce Harper got off to a similar start in his new home, in a way that was good but below his own standards. Coming off wRC+ seasons of 155 and 135 with Washington, Harper was at “only” 124 in 2019. He struck out more and didn’t experience a huge uptick in power, despite playing in an arguably friendlier hitter’s park in Philadelphia. Since then, Harper has fired on every single cylinder.
His wRC+ the following three seasons was 150 and 170, with 164 the mark thus far in 2022. He features obscene ISO numbers of .274, .305, and .315, and he walked at a 20 percent rate in 2021. He lives in the 90th+ percentile in almost everything that one can do at the plate. In 2021, he won the second NL MVP award of his career. Despite whatever nonsensical “overrated” tag existed for Bryce Harper earlier in his career, he’s been anything but. Machado has been among the elite this season and was very good in each of the last two seasons prior. Since making Philly his home, Bryce Harper has been a top three- or top four-hitter in baseball.
Contract Praise (For Once)
This isn’t necessarily a comparison of their contracts. There are parallels, certainly. Especially given how the timing of their respective deals lined up. The most important thing here is what it illustrates about these two players and their contracts. The Padres could be set up to make a deep run. They’ve got pitching. They’ve got Machado. They’ve got an aggressive front office. And they’ve got Fernando Tatis Jr. on the way back. The Phillies have enough offense and starting pitching (on paper) to carry them as far as their depth and bullpen are willing to take them. In any case, though, each player is a primary catalyst for a pair of teams that has big hopes.
As much as we love to criticize a dude who might not live up to his billing on a major contract (Patrick Corbin, Jason Heyward, etc.), we owe as much love to those like Manny Machado and Bryce Harper, who have lived up to every penny in their new homes.
*Author’s Note: The nickname doesn’t exaggerate. San Diego is America’s Finest City. Every MLBer should make it their goal to sign a decade-long contract with the Padres. Who doesn’t want to live in San Diego?