Could Manny Machado Really 'Lose' in $175 Million Free-Agency Letdown?

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistJanuary 22, 2019

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 28:  Manny Machado #8 of the Los Angeles Dodgers reacts to his first inning strike out against the Boston Red Sox in Game Five of the 2018 World Series at Dodger Stadium on October 28, 2018 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

Manny Machado will be employed by a Major League Baseball team in 2019. The question is, how much will his employer pay him?

Entering the offseason, the answer seemed to be "an awful lot." And by almost any measure, it still is.

But in the funhouse-mirror world of MLB salaries—where six figures is the minimum, eight figures is decent and nine figures is measured by degree—Machado may be in for a $175 million "letdown."

That's a silly amount of money for most of us, enough to set up our children and our children's children in perpetuity. For Machado, it would be considerably less than he expected after he and the Los Angeles Dodgers lost Game 5 of the 2018 World Series and he became a free agent.

A contract in excess of $200 million seemed like a given. A deal that eclipsed $300 million felt like a distinct possibility.

Machado is entering his age-26 season and can capably play shortstop or third base. He's made four All-Star teams, won two Gold Gloves and has three top-10 MVP finishes. He hit 37 home runs with 107 RBI and a .905 OPS between the Dodgers and Baltimore Orioles last year. 

Along with outfielder and fellow 26-year-old Bryce Harper, who's also languishing unsigned as of this writing, he represented the cream of the free-agent crop.

Then, modern market realities kicked in. Teams held back, snapping up the players willing to sign less expensive, shorter-term pacts while hanging back on massive Machado and Harper payouts. As the spring training countdown clock continues to tick, the two superstars still don't have gigs. 

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

Enter the recent rumor, courtesy of ESPN's Buster Olney and USA Today's Bob Nightengale, that the Chicago White Sox offered Machado a seven-year, $175 million contract a few weeks ago.

The ChiSox are an up-and-coming team in need of a superstar. They rank 24th in committed payroll for 2019, per Spotrac. Machado would slot nicely into the middle of their young lineup and would instantly make them contenders in the weak, winnable American League Central. 

It's a natural fit. So, why are the White Sox lowballing Machado?

To be fair, it isn't that simple. Machado's agent pushed back against Olney and Nightengale's reports and called them "completely wrong" in a statement, via Yahoo Sports' Tim Brown

The Philadelphia Phillies are another possible destination for Machado. And as Andy Martino of SNY.tv reported Saturday, the New York Yankees and at least two "mystery teams" remain in the mix, too. 

Machado may not be backed into a contractual corner. There could be enough demand to drive his price tag northward. 

With each passing day, though, the likelihood of him exceeding that $175 million mark shrinks. 

Teams and owners have woken up to the reality that they control players through what are frequently their best years up to and through arbitration. After that, guys expect to be paid through their late 20s and well into their 30s when steep declines are common. That's been the deal for a while.

Except now, clubs are spooked by the prospect of paying players for what they've already accomplished rather than what they will accomplish going forward. The old paradigm has shifted, and it hasn't shifted in the players' favor. 

Matt Slocum/Associated Press

Machado, like Harper, isn't over the hill. By most estimations, he's in the midst of his prime. But a long-term deal would carry him well past that prime. The sting on the back end of such deals is often painful. 

On top of that, for all of his enviable skills, Machado has sometimes made the wrong kind of headlines, as Jon Meoli of the Baltimore Sun outlined:

"If this is all a judgment on the litany of headlines Machado has made over the years—from the Josh Donaldson incident to his fight with Yordano Ventura to the feud with the Boston Red Sox or his playoff base-running aggression—then baseball has delivered a verdict that many might find fair. When a team is swallowing hard and giving out a nine-figure contract, some of those might be hard to get past."

This goes deeper than Machado. It's about the new paradigm in MLB free agency, and it's going to impact all players.

Recently, San Francisco Giants third baseman Evan Longoria sounded off on the issue on Instagram:

"We are less then a month from the start of spring and once again some of our [game's] biggest [stars] remain unsigned. Such a shame. [It] seems every day now someone is making up a new analytical tool to devalue players, especially free agents. As fans, why should 'value' for your team even be a consideration? It's not your money, it's money that players have worked their whole lives to get to that level and be deserving of. Bottom line, fans should want the best players and product on the field for their team."

You can debate the definition of "deserve." You can point out that getting paid more than $100 million guaranteed to play a children's game, even if you get injured or your performance craters, is a great deal.

Either way, this is where things stand in MLB in 2019. The days of salaries rising exponentially seem to be over for now.

If players such as Machado and others want to reverse the trend, they'll need to wait until the current collective bargaining agreement expires in Dec. 2021. At that point, we could be in for a fight, if not another damaging strike.

For now, Machado is unemployed. And he may need to brace himself for a lucrative letdown.

             

All statistics courtesy of Baseball Reference

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