Baseball's new year has begun with the same two-part question the baseball offseason began with in November: Where will Bryce Harper go, and where will Manny Machado go?
Two months in, we don't have an answer. Two weeks from now, we still may not have an answer. Two months from now, presumably we will since spring training will be going strong and Opening Day will be fast approaching.
It may come down to which team offers the most money, as many free-agent pursuits do. It may come down to where they want to live and play. In a column in December on Fancred, Jon Heyman wrote that Harper "isn't necessarily enamored with the city of Philadelphia." Later that month, Joel Sherman wrote in the New York Post that "word is neither [Harper nor Machado] particularly likes Philadelphia."
That would be bad news for the team that rushed into the winter by revealing to USA Today that it was ready to spend "stupid" money. Nobody took that to mean signing Andrew McCutchen and David Robertson, which the Philadelphia Phillies have done. Everyone understood it meant signing Harper or Machado or Harper and Machado.
For the moment, though, disregard the money, stupid or otherwise. Disregard the liveability of the cities and the compatibility of the ballparks. Let's say Harper and Machado went to their respective agents—Scott Boras and Dan Lozano—and said the only thing that matters is the ring.
What if all they want is the best chance to win? Where do they go then?
Remember, neither one has a ring. Harper's Washington Nationals made the playoffs four times in his seven seasons, but they never made it out of the division series. Machado never got past the first round with the Baltimore Orioles (he was hurt when the O's advanced to the ALCS in 2014), and his Los Angeles Dodgers lost to the Boston Red Sox in the 2018 World Series.
So what if that's the goal? What then?
We're going to make this a little easier by eliminating most of the teams up front. Some of them just aren't realistic options for big-money free agents (Tampa Bay Rays, Oakland Athletics), and some spend plenty of money and are plenty good but just aren't a fit (Houston Astros, Boston Red Sox).
Machado's market has seemingly been defined as the Phillies, the New York Yankees and the Chicago White Sox, the three teams he visited on a December tour. Harper's market seems more wide-open, with possibly those three teams, the Dodgers and the Chicago Cubs as options. And there's still a realistic chance he stays with the Nationals.
From top to bottom in terms of title chances, among the teams most mentioned as possible Harper and/or Machado destinations, here's our list:
1. Dodgers. Machado didn't win with them, but Harper could. They will have Corey Seager back to take the shortstop spot Machado vacates, and they opened up room in the outfield (and the payroll) when they traded Matt Kemp and Yasiel Puig.
They still have Clayton Kershaw and Walker Buehler in the rotation and Kenley Jansen in the bullpen. They have been to the World Series the past two years, and even without Harper, they are at worst one of the favorites to win the National League again. With him, they would be an even more obvious pick to get back to the World Series and win it this time.
2. Yankees. Harper isn't an obvious fit given the presence of Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge. But Machado is, especially with Didi Gregorius out for at least the first part of the season after Tommy John surgery. The Yankees signed Troy Tulowitzki, but he's far from a sure thing at this stage of his career.
Either Harper or Machado would be a huge addition to what is already a loaded middle of the lineup, with a team that finished just behind the Red Sox for the most runs scored in 2018. The problem is they play in the same division as the Red Sox and the same league as the Astros, so getting to the World Series is a challenge (they haven't been there since winning in 2009).
3. Nationals. While it's true they have never won in October, they did just add Patrick Corbin to a rotation that already includes Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. That's enough to make them a challenger again, with a lineup that includes Anthony Rendon and emerging star Juan Soto. They have a chance to win, even without Harper. Add him back in, and the chances go up.
4. Phillies. It's true that they haven't had a winning record since 2011. It's true that most of their young talent has underwhelmed at the major league level. But they were in first place as late as the middle of August, and even if McCutchen and Robertson aren't the exciting signings everyone expected, they are nice additions if something bigger follows.
And who knows, maybe Mike Trout ends up there in two years if he gets to free agency. Remember, they have "stupid" money and an owner who is on the record as saying he wants to spend it. Even if they don't win in 2019, the money and the talent already there gives them a chance to win before a Harper or Machado contract would run out.
5. Cubs. Based on current talent, they probably belong higher up the list. But the same issues that have made them one of the longer shots to sign Harper (and seem to have kept them out of the Machado market) make you wonder a bit about their future. Because of some contracts that are too big and the others that are set to rise dramatically, they seem to have less financial maneuverability than you would expect.
If they have to move money to afford a run at Harper, will they have money down the line if they need another player to put them over the top?
6. White Sox. They do have some great young talent, including Eloy Jimenez, ranked by MLB.com as the third-best prospect in baseball and set to emerge on the Chicago scene in 2019. They do play in a winnable division because the three-time defending champion Cleveland Indians just don't have enough money to keep all their players or to go big on additions.
But it's been more than a decade since they made the playoffs, they lost 100 games in 2018 and their most exciting young pitcher, Michael Kopech, will miss all of 2019 after Tommy John surgery. They look like a team on the rise, but even as young as Harper and Machado both are (26), is it worth jumping aboard when there's still so far to go?
Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.
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