Manny Machado is running full-throttle toward the free-agent contract of a lifetime this winter. Or, wait. Is he jogging?
The free-agent star is no Johnny Hustle, by his own admission in a now-infamous October interview with The Athletic's Ken Rosenthal. Indeed, hustling 24/7 is not his "cup of tea." That became clear several times down the stretch last season and in the playoffs when the marquee man the Los Angeles Dodgers traded for became a marked man thanks to his perplexing, inexplicable lack of urgency in key moments.
Even before the rest of the baseball world caught on under October's glare, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts admitted to talking to Machado in September about his periodic lack of effort, explaining it away as the sometimes slothful superstar's tendency to go into "conservation" mode because he is an everyday player.
Now, as the free-agent shopping season moves toward full excess, people are waiting to see whether the industry awards Machado the $300 million-plus deal that's long been expected, or whether, however incrementally, his October behavior elicits a percentage-off tag.
While several executives continued to wonder how and why one of the game's premier free agents would induce such self-inflicted damage at a key time, most at the general manager meetings earlier this month in Carlsbad, California, figured Machado nevertheless will emerge from the winter a wealthy man.
"I would say he may have damaged himself, but it only takes one [team]," said a National League GM who, like his counterparts, asked for anonymity because of the subject's sensitive nature. "There isn't anybody here who can 100 percent guarantee that he has damaged himself. It just takes one angel, right? One angel investor to make it so where he hasn't done anything."
Said an AL GM: "You can say he's worth whatever, but your ownership...[if you are going to] make that investment, you want somebody that's going to do everything they can in their power ... to live up to expectations and exceed them. And care.
"You want someone that's going to give a s--t. And that [hustle] quote doesn't make you feel good about it. That's my takeaway. Now, it doesn't change who he is as a player or what he's capable of. It doesn't change that at all."
No small part of the importance of the "give a s--t" quotient ties into the relevance of team culture.
"If you've got a predominantly youthful team, is that the example you want set by your superstar?" one AL GM asks.
The Phillies, who think they are entering another window to win, are coming off some lean payroll years while rebuilding and have only $69 million committed to their 2019 payroll, $51 million for 2020 and only $15 million for 2021, per Baseball Reference.
Then there's the Yankees, who have a clear need after shortstop Didi Gregorius underwent Tommy John surgery in October, which will likely keep him out until at least midseason. Sources close to Machado say the infielder has always been enamored with New York. The sides are expected to talk, and those discussions will turn serious even before money is negotiated based on what the Yankees' Hal Steinbrenner told reporters at the owners' meetings two weeks ago.
"If it's a $300 million guy or a $10 million guy, clearly, [Machado's] comments are troubling," Steinbrenner said, per USA Today's Bob Nightengale. "But that's really [GM Brian Cashman's] job, if we're interested in any player, to sit down with them face to face and ask him: 'Where did this come from? What was the context around the entire interview? Was there a point? How do you justify it?'
"Because that ain't going to sell where we play baseball."
Machado took a stab at damage control last week. In an MLB.com interview on Thanksgiving eve, he said he was on the "defensive" when he uttered the Johnny Hustle comments and added that the remarks didn't "come across how I meant it."
There is a difference, he added, between "fake hustle for show and being someone who tries hard to win."
Not everyone in the game was impressed with his explanation. Jim Palmer, the Hall of Famer and Orioles television analyst who covered Machado for all but the brief Dodgers portion of his career, checked in with this:
Lumped in with the questions about Machado's sometimes debatable effort level are a series of on-field incidents that have infuriated opponents. Just last month, Machado kicked the leg of Milwaukee first baseman Jesus Aguilar while running to first during Game 4 of the National League Championship Series. Brewers outfielder Christian Yelich, who was named the NL MVP at season's end, noted Machado's history of bad behavior and called it a "dirty play by a dirty player." MLB clearly agreed, fining Machado $10,000.
"It reminded me of Grayson Allen of Duke," one former player tells B/R. "I was like, 'Wow, how strange is this?' It was not an outright tantrum like Grayson Allen, but it's a tantrum.
"If done on purpose, it's a tantrum."
History is not on Machado's side. He was also at the center of a weekend of brawling between Baltimore and Oakland in June 2014, a chain of events punctuated when he let his bat fly toward then-Athletics third baseman Alberto Callaspo after a swing. For that, MLB gave him a five-game suspension.
"Certain stuff you see is unprofessional," said Astros outfielder Josh Reddick, who was with the A's in 2014. "Just the way he comes off, he can be a little unprofessional. 'I'm not the Johnny Hustle guy,' that leaves a bad taste in a lot of people's mouths."
With free agency on deck, especially with as much money on the line as Machado has, you would think a player would be on his best behavior.
"You would think," Reddick said. "You would think. But he obviously doesn't care about that. He's going to be himself, and if it hurts him, it's his own problem."
Machado's actions this autumn also caused Eric Byrnes, the former outfielder-turned-MLB Network analyst, to fire off this assessment in a blog post:
"His overall behavior on the field transcends baseball etiquette and falls much more in line with a total lack of human being societal decency. ... Machado is an incredibly talented player. ... Yet, I can say with great conviction that if I were the owner of any of the 30 MLB clubs there is ZERO chance I would give this dude 1 f--king dollar."
Machado's behavior—including a crotch-grab directed at Milwaukee fans—dogged him all autumn. So, too, did reminders of it: Once the Dodgers eliminated the Brewers to face Boston in the World Series, it was impossible to avoid the subject of Dustin Pedroia, who was injured in April 2017, by what then-Red Sox manager John Farrell called an "extremely late" Machado slide.
"Pedey still hasn't played since then, really," Red Sox reliever Matt Barnes said on the eve of the World Series. "When you take out the captain, the leader of the team, it's not going to sit well with anybody."
Speaking of the Machado-Aguilar play, Barnes continued: "Honestly, I'm not surprised about that. It seems like it's a trend."
Regarding accusations that he's a dirty player, Machado at the World Series said simply: "I play hard for my ballclub. Whatever uniform I'm going to put on, I'm going to bleed and die. I do whatever I can to win ballgames."
At 26 and with a lifetime OPS of .822 while playing premium defensive positions—shortstop now after several seasons at third base—that Machado ranks as one of the game's biggest impact players remains unquestioned. He's walloped 33 or more home runs in each of the past four seasons, and in Baltimore and Los Angeles in 2018, he hit .297/.367/.538 with 37 homers and 107 RBI.
There should be no question regarding Machado's status as a premium talent and the kind of value he can bring to a team.
Except, thanks to Machado himself, questions abound.
"He seemed to be pretty clear in his statements that that's the type of player he is, and people should embrace him for who he is," an AL GM said. "I think they will do just that. I think he requested that we do that, and I think we'll do that as an industry.
"Now, I can't prognosticate if it's going to cost him 5, 10 or a more meaningful percent of what he could have earned. It may cost him a suitor. And that may not ultimately have an impact on his salary when all is said and done.
"But I think it's going to be tough for him to make that type of a statement and then ask to be paid like the highest-paid player in the history of the game."
Scott Boras, representative of Bryce Harper—the free-agent who's dueling Machado this winter in the quest for a record-setting deal—noted at the GM meetings Harper's 1.109 OPS during his MVP 2015 season and then continued with a sly dig at Machado.
"Bryce ... I think clearly would have won the MVP in '17 if he hadn't hurt himself hustling down the line," Boras said.
So, as potential suitors consider their options, Machado's body of work is there for all to see. He's been under the microscope since he debuted as a 19-year-old in 2012, and organizations will do further due diligence on his makeup anyway. There are plenty of people around the league who have played with Machado, worked alongside him or know him and can speak to who he is and what he's about.
His brother-in-law, Yonder Alonso, tells of how Machado, who was raised in poverty by his mother and an uncle, was rough around the edges when they first met and how much he's matured. Veteran outfielder Jon Jay, a hometown friend from their native Miami, told B/R last summer that Machado's baseball instincts "are off the chart."
As one GM said, the recent flurry of events simply will make interested organizations "probe a little further. I still think at the end of the day he's a great player ... he's got a good reputation as a teammate and as far as wanting to win. I can't explain what happened in the playoffs. But there's a large body of work with this guy."
This GM also sides with Roberts' explaining away the periodic lack of hustle as "conservation."
"I think a lot of GMs will tell you, managers as well, I want my guy to be available every day," the GM said. "Sometimes you need to save your legs. I know the optics of that aren't great, and I think he was being very candid about it, and maybe there's other ways to express it.
"I don't know Manny, and his choice of words may not have been the best, but when I look at the games-played column, he doesn't miss games. I've seen where guys are 'I'm sore with this. I can't go. I can't play,' and OK, they play hard when they play, but they play 120 games."
Machado played in 162 contests in 2018 and has played in at least 156 in five of his six full seasons in the majors.
"I'm not trying to make excuses for him, but that's undeniable," the GM said. "The fact that he does make himself available to play day-in and day-out for a long period of time."
Who wants a game-changing bat on his best days...and a Sunday jogger in his most maddening of moments?
"It's like the Patriots; they always talk about, 'Make sure that your best-paid player's behavior is the model you want for everybody else,'" one GM said. "I think that's something to consider."
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.