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Even after hectic week, possibility still exists Harper, Machado reach free-agency

By Tim Kelly, Sports Talk Philly editor

Even after an MLB Winter Meetings where the respective futures of Bryce Harper and Manny Machado were heavily discussed, this rings true: there's still a real chance that Harper and Machado will highlight the greatest free-agent class in the history of the sport next offseason.

Harper's case is fairly clear-cut. While both Harper's agent Scott Boras and Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo have publicly said the two sides briefly engaged on Harper's next contract, the Nationals reportedly still expect to have to compete for Harper's services on the free-agent market next offseason. That, at the very, least would open things up for Matt Klentak and the Philadelphia Phillies to compete for Harper, who will turn 26 next October. 

Jayson Stark appeared on The Mike Missanelli Show on 97.5 The Fanatic this week and said this when asked if he thinks the Phillies will "be a major player, that breaks the bank for Harper:"

"I just don't get any sense that the Phillies are afraid to throw $400 million plus at Bryce Harper."

Stark's opinion on the matter is on top of an anonymous Phillies person saying this to John Perretto of FanRag Sports last summer: 

However, a Phillies source says his team would have interest in trying to lure Harper to Philadelphia if he reaches free agency.

“We have a lot of good young players but we don’t have that one guy who has taken off and become one of the better players in the league,” the Phillies source said. “Adding a true impact hitter would make all the difference in the world.”

Harper's free-agency, assuming it comes to fruition, will be heavily contested. The Chicago Cubs - the team that employs another former MVP, Kris Bryant, who, like Harper, is a Las Vegas native - figure to be heavily involved. Nick Cafardo of The Boston Globe is the latest to float the idea that the Yankees could flip Giancarlo Stanton to the Los Angeles Dodgers next offseason and make a push for Harper. Traditional big-market teams like the Dodgers, San Francisco Giants and Boston Red Sox will have something to say. And, of course, the Nationals will be a factor. 

As for Machado, the Winter Meetings have come and gone, and he's still an Oriole. Most reports suggest that the team, reluctantly, will end up trading him this offseason, rather than having him leave in free-agency after next season. There are a lot of moving parts, though: the Orioles seem to have a very high asking-price for a player a year away from free-agency; they have been connected to pieces like Gerrit Cole, suggesting they still hope to compete in 2018; and they have one of the least predictable owners in sports in Peter Angelos.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle in moving Machado is that Orioles general manager Dan Duquette has publicly said that the Orioles are unlikely to give any team that trades for Machado a 72-hour negotiating window to work out a long-term extension before a trade is completed. Some have criticized Duquette for this, though the Orioles would seem motivated to allow this negotiating window if it increased the return they could get for Machado. That they aren't willing to doesn't suggest that they are being unreasonable or stupid, it suggests that they know Machado wants to test free-agency, and would be unlikely to seriously consider signing a long-term contract right now. 

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The possibility does exist that a team like the Yankees, St. Louis Cardinals or Chicago White Sox acquires Machado this offseason, he enjoys his stay there and re-signs without testing free-agency. He has the right to do that, though, like Harper, he would seem to benefit from at least testing free-agency, even if he ultimately re-signs with the team he most recently played for. Unlike Harper, there appears to be no chance that the Orioles retain Machado, so he would have to be traded this offseason for the previous sentence to really apply to him. 

If he reached free-agency, the Phillies may be able to provide a pretty enticing landing spot for him. They are a young team moving towards contention, so adding a superstar like Machado would help expedite that process. As Stark said above, they aren't short on funds, and they do possess as much financial flexibility as any team in the league, so they could likely outspend any team if they chose to do so. And they have a front-office full of former Orioles executives in Andy MacPhail, Matt Klentak and Ned Rice, among others, so there's a sense of familiarity.  

At some point next offseason, the Phillies will have to pick which direction to invest more of their resources in, Harper or Machado. Both being free-agents at the same time would be beneficial to the Phillies, because if the Phillies would have to spend more time and energy focused on one of the two, so would other big-market contenders. That would create less serious competition to bid against for whichever of the two the Phillies choose to make a push for. It also would allow them a fall-back option - as strange as they may sound when talking about two of the game's biggest talents - if they don't land their No. 1 target.

There was a point early this week where it felt like after years of discussing Harper and Machado headlining the 2018-19 free-agent class, both might be off-the-board a year early. But after the busiest MLB Winter Meetings in recent memory, the dust has settled, at least a bit. And the bet here is that both will reach the free-agent market next offseason. 

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