As I wrote late last December, 2018 will be the most important calendar year for the Philadelphia Phillies in some time. It will be the first season in the managerial tenure of Gabe Kapler, who the Phillies hope will lead the next great era in franchise history. It will be the first full season at the major league level for Rhys Hoskins, J.P. Crawford, Nick Williams and Jorge Alfaro, all of whom the team hopes will develop into core pieces. But perhaps most importantly, the Phillies have long been viewed as a major potential player in the 2018-19 free-agent class, which is highlighted by Washington Nationals RF Bryce Harper and Baltimore Orioles SS/3B Manny Machado.
Understand that this may very well change a number of times before next offseason, but recent developments suggest that if both Harper and Machado reach free-agency, the Phillies will have a better shot at signing Harper.
Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports reported this past week that should Machado reach free-agency next offseason, the Yankees are viewed as "practically a slam dunk in some quarters" to land his services. USA Today's Bob Nightengale says that Machado, who will play shortstop full-time in 2018, "would like to be on center stage in a big market," something echoed in Heyman's story. The Orioles inexplicably allowed Machado to get to this point without trading him - an extension was probably never realistic - and Nightengale, too, says that the Yankees are prepared to make a serious push for the three-time All-Star.
Could the Phillies attempt to trade for Machado before he reaches free-agency? Sure, but landing Machado feels pretty unlikely for a few reasons.
Roch Kubatko of MASN reported this offseason that the Orioles "covet" Phillies top pitching prospect Sixto Sanchez (who a scout compared to Pedro Martinez) and second base prospect Scott Kingery (who a scout compared to Dustin Pedroia). Sanchez, presumably in just about any situation, won't be traded. Kingery is probably in the same boat, especially if the Phillies wouldn't be given a window to sign Machado to a long-term deal in any trade.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle in moving Machado is that Orioles general manager Dan Duquette said in December 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 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 (or weren't at around the time of the MLB Winter Meetings) 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.
For the time being, Machado is an Oriole. But things may get late rather early this season.
Logic would suggest that the Orioles, who are unlikely to be serious playoff contenders in 2018, will move Machado this summer. Better late than never, right? And there has been the idea floated that a team like the Chicago White Sox or St. Louis Cardinals could make a play for Machado, hoping that he enjoys his time there so much that he agrees to re-sign. First of all, that feels like a pipe dream. He's going to test free-agency, and it's going to be very hard for him to turn down the Yankees. Secondly, Orioles chairman Peter Angelos is one of the most difficult people to deal with in the sport. The possibility exists that he will nix any trade agreed to in principle, even if that would be what's best for the team's long-term future.
None of this is to say the Phillies should altogether write off pursuing Machado next offseason. They will be able to spend as much as any team, and they also have a strong young core developing. The problem is the Yankees have an even better core, may win the World Series this year, and, like always, will be able to spend. There is a point where you have to be realistic.
That brings us to Harper, who like Machado, will be 26 when he reaches free-agency. Unlike Machado, Harper's current team, the Washington Nationals, will at least be a factor in his free-agency. However, Heyman reported last week that the Nationals understand that "it's not too likely that they'll be able to keep him." Enter, the Phillies, who Harper has slashed .303/.420/.665 with 17 home runs and 41 RBIs against since the start of the 2015 season.
The Chicago Cubs began to seem like the early favorite to sign Harper late in 2017 - they are a big market team, they, after already winning a World Series title in 2016, figure to remain competitive for years to come, and Harper is good friends with 2016 National League MVP Kris Bryant. Though the article has since been removed, Heyman noted last month that he thought the Phillies were among a field of four teams more likely to sign Harper than the Cubs. (For what it's worth, in his most recent article, Heyman seems to think the Cubs have as much or more of a chance to sign Harper than the Phillies.)
The San Francisco Giants are close (in relative terms, at least) to Las Vegas, Harper's hometown. While they could conceivably make the financial investment necessary to sign Harper, they are an older team with a poor farm system. The Giants did add Andrew McCutchen and Evan Longoria - neither of whom are particularly young - this offseason, so it's fair to think Bruce Bochy's club should improve upon the 64-98 record they posted in 2017. But from here, it feels like they would be a tough sell for Harper, especially if a team like the Phillies is capable of outbidding them.
The Los Angeles Dodgers may end up being what stands between Harper joining the Phillies. Like the Giants, they play in California, so they may have a geographic advantage. (It's also possible we are overrating how much of a factor location will play in this.) Unlike the Giants, the Dodgers played in the World Series in 2017. They could take a slight step back from last year, but president Andrew Friedman and general manager Farhan Zaidi have done a tremendous job of balancing the present and the future, as ESPN's Keith Law says the team still has one of the 10 best farm systems in the sport.
In all likelihood, Clayton Kershaw will opt-out of the final two seasons of his contract after the 2018 season. It's unclear how, if at all, that would affect a potential pursuit of Harper or Harper's interest in joining the team. The argument could be made (as it probably could with the Phillies) that the Dodgers don't need to add another outfielder. Yasiel Puig bounced back in 2017, while Chris Taylor had a breakout season. And according to MLB Pipeline, three of the Dodgers top five prospects are outfielders. Still, Harper is a generational talent that will be reaching free-agency at age 26. The Dodgers can trade some of their talented young outfielders for pitching if that situation presents itself. Having too many outfield talents is a good problem to have. So it's probably wishful thinking to think that the Dodgers won't make a serious push for Harper next offseason.
What do the Phillies have to offer? They won't be able to come to Harper and tout a core that has already made multiple playoff runs like the Dodgers and Cubs can. However, joining a core with Kingery, Rhys Hoskins, Aaron Nola, Odubel Herrera and J.P. Crawford could intrigue Harper, who regularly plays against the Phillies. Klentak and the Phillies can also sell Harper on the second wave of young talent developing in the team's farm system, led by Sanchez and Adam Haseley. And managing partner John Middleton, by all accounts, is eager to spend. The Phillies, should they choose, could outbid every other team for Harper and probably still have enough money to go after another top free-agent.
The Phillies are also in the midst of a two-year series of upgrades to an already beautiful stadium. You shouldn't read too much into this, but Harper went as far as saying that he "loves" playing at Citizens Bank Park in front of Phillies fans last April. He's sure loved to hit there, as he has more home runs in his career at Citizens Bank Park than any opponent's park. He, no doubt, remembers the electric environment that Phillies fans created at Citizens Bank Park early in his career, during the back half of the greatest run in franchise history. And if the Yankees aren't going to be a serious competitor for Harper (I'm not sure I would entirely close the door on them, but Machado does seem to make more sense), Citizens Bank Park wouldn't be a bad plan B to make a push for 600 home runs.
Phillies brass may have to put together a unique case to attempt to lure Harper to Philadelphia, but there's certainly a case to be made.
Of course, Machado and Harper will be the biggest prizes next offseason, but they won't be the only ones. The aforementioned Kershaw, Dallas Keuchel, Josh Donaldson, Charlie Blackmon, A.J. Pollock and Andrew Miller could also help make up what will be one of the greatest free-agent classes next offseason.
But this offseason, Dave Buck, the Phillies executive vice president, spoke of a desire to get Citizens Bank Park "jumping" again over the course of the next few seasons. The best way to do that would be to obtain one of Machado or Harper, right as they enter what may be their peak years. It's been the worst kept secret in the world for years now that the Phillies plan to spend big next offseason. Now less than a year out, it appears that Harper may be the more likely of the two to end up in Philadelphia. Buckle up.