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January 15, 2019

Why exactly can't the Phillies sign both Manny Machado and Bryce Harper?

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011619_Harper-Machado_usat USA Today Sports/File

Bryce Harper and Manny Machado.

If you're a hardcore Phillies fan — or even just a casual one — you've probably seen reports for months that the Phillies are NOT going to be signing both Manny Machado and Bryce Harper.

The team seems to have favored Machado for a while, but the tide may be turning toward Harper. The Phillies seem determined and pretty likely to land one of this offseason's biggest whales.

Part owner John Middleton said the team might be spending "stupid money" this winter — so why won't they sign both?

First, the reporting. Matt Gelb of The Athletic seemed pretty clear in his understanding that the club would not be inking both All-Star sluggers.

It behooves the team to keep both Harper and Machado engaged because the most valuable leverage the Phillies have is the threat of choosing one over the other. 

It’s a choice they do not yet have to make. The Phillies are believed to prefer Machado over Harper because he is an elite hitter and defender, but conflicting information has spread from team to team and agent to agent. That, of course, is by design. The Phillies do not benefit from broadcasting their preference. League sources insisted the Phillies have made this much clear during negotiations: They will not sign both players. [The Athletic

Gelb goes on to get into some "game theory" scenarios where one player or one team blinks first and then a domino effect follows. Whether or not it is actually possible, or even likely, for the Phillies to sign both Machado and Harper is not the subject of our pontification. It's simply why they wouldn't be interested in both.

The benefits would be obvious. 

The best way to sign both, honestly, could be to sign one first. The above lineup is deadly potent and looks like a World Series contender (even with Philly lacking in left-handed pitching). That's all the evidence you need to argue that both of them make a line up lethal.

For whatever reason, very few teams are engaged in talks to sign each player. Save for a mystery team emerging, it's really just the Nationals, Phillies, White Sox and possibly the Yankees talking deals with the players at hand. This gives Philly a potentially large amount of leverage, as giving big offers to one of both could force the hand of the other clubs interested.

The Phillies could also help their hand by offering a longer deal. It was reported that the White Sox' offer was just seven years, $175 million for Machado. Philly can definitely do better than that. A 10-year pact, the length both are likely seeking would take both players into their age-36 season, though buy outs and option years are certainly likely with a contract offer that long. Philly showed it was hesitant to add extra years when chasing after Patrick Corbin and J.A. Happ. That could need to change.

It would take some stupid money to do it, but the dual signing is not out of the realm of rationality even when one looks at the Phillies' payroll. Here's a look, with the guess that it will take a $30 million annual salary to ink Machado or Harper (assuming the Phillies lose in the Aaron Nola arbitration case, which would land the ace close to $7 million):

 Current payrollHarper or Machado   Both
Phillies $122m$152m$182m 
MLB Rank12th7th 4th
Luxury Tax space ($206)$84m$54m$24m 

In the event that the Phils netted both Machado and Harper, at least one corresponding move would likely follow. Though it's no guarantee, Philadelphia could get a little relief back by moving third baseman Maikel Franco ($5.2 million) or second baseman Cesar Hernandez ($7.25 million).

With Machado and Harper both under contract, the Phillies would likely be priced out of the chance to also sign a player like Dallas Keuchel, though the trade market would still exist for the team to shore up its pitching staff. 

Reports surfaced Wednesday that the Phillies could be targeting the trio of Harper, Keuchel and closer Craig Kimbrel.

In theory, this threesome could cost essentially the same as Machado and Harper together would — give or take. Spotrac.com projects that Kuechel is worth $22 million a year and Kimbrel $16.5 million on the open market. Those two plus Harper could cost the Phillies $68.5 million a year. 

Would you rather pay Harper, Keuchel (31) and Kimbrel (31) close to $70 million, or Harper and Machado, both 26 and in the middle of their primes, $60 million?

Both scenarios have the Phils under the luxury tax, but awfully close to it. Teams like the Yankees and Dodgers have done all they could to get under the luxury tax, with just the Red Sox and Nationals currently slated to surpass the threshold. With the league trending away from high payrolls (if the slog of the last two MLB offseasons isn't evidence enough), the Phillies would probably prefer not to pay a tax.

But then again, stupid money.

Philadelphia has, surprisingly, never exceeded the luxury tax, even though it had among MLB's highest payrolls during the glory days of the late 2000s and early 2010s.

When they won the World Series in 2008, they finished the season with the 13th highest payroll at $98.2 million. Here's what's happened since:

 YearPayroll Rank LT space 
2009*$113m7th$49m 
2010*$142m4th$28m 
2011*$173m2nd$5m
2012$174.5m2nd $4.5m
2013$159.5m3rd$18.5m 
2014 $175.5m3rd $13.5m
2015$142m9th$47m 
2016$104m19th $85m 
2017$104m22nd $101m
2018$104m23rd$103m

* Made playoffs

A jump from 23rd to fourth — or higher — would be pretty unprecedented, but the team signed a $5 billion deal with Comcast a few years ago, and the league is boasting current record high revenues, which is one of the reasons Middleton was not shy to make his "stupid money" claim.

The biggest issue of course, is that adding upwards of $60 million in payroll to add Machado and Harper would make any subsequent signing that pushes the team over the $206 million mark up to 22.5 percent more expensive (the first time offender's rate). Aaron Nola is in the midst of three arbitration eligible years but he will eventually command a pretty healthy contract extension. 

A bevy of youngsters like Rhys Hoskins, Seranthony Dominguez, Nick Williams and others will eventually require arbitration and then contracts. And that's not even considering that the Phillies will require some financial flexibility should they want to add pieces during a playoff run, as they notably did every single season during their last wave of successes.

And that's not even mentioning the healthy crop of free agents to come over the next few years, including Mike Trout in 2020.

Most fans would scoff at the hesitation of a multi-billion dollar operation choosing to save a meager few million dollars over the potential to win another World Series, but a Machado-Harper World Series alliance is no sure thing.

The bottom line is, however, that the opportunity to sign two players who average almost nine wins above replacement combined per year is a once in a generation occurrence.

There's no control over what the White Sox or Nationals or a mystery team does between now and when these players sign in February. Nor is there any way to get into the heads of these two All-Stars to see where their leanings are. This may not actually be possible. 

But if it is, the Phillies have to do it.

After all, it's only (stupid) money.


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