Back in early November, the good folks at MLB Trade Rumors dot com released their predictions for the current class of free agents, guessing educatedly at both their most likely landing places and how much money each would earn. This class has long been touted as the flashiest, most unique one in recent memory, with the combination of both game-changing talent and youth one not often seen.
MLBTR tabbed Bryce Harper and Manny Machado as the two most attractive free agents on the market, unsurprisingly, with Harper predicted to land a massive $420 million guarantee from the Los Angeles Dodgers and Machado just behind him with a $390 million guarantee from the Philadelphia Phillies. Either - when first signed - would be a record, of course, and despite a handful of teams theoretically in position to ramp the bidding for both players into that level of stratosphere, those are the kinds of financial commitments that aren’t reached easily.
The first slate of pitchers and catchers are set to report to MLB camps as early as February 12th, which is less than six weeks away. And because both Harper and Machado remain unsigned, there’s a residual stall in the rest of the MLB transaction world as the major movers in the game wait to see not just where each lands, but at what cost.
Teams like the Chicago White Sox, for instance, have been rumored to be in the mix for both Harper and Machado, and they’re a club that doesn’t appear to be close to contention with just one signing - even at that level. They’ve certainly got room in the payroll given where how they’ve spent in the past, but it wouldn’t make a ton of sense for them to dole out the kind of coin it would take to sign one of Harper or Machado and then stand pat afterwards. In theory, their pursuit and landing of a Harper/Machado caliber star would only be the first move they’d be up for as they look to emerge from rebuilding status, and would signal to the rest of baseball that they were once again open for business.
If - and it’s a big if - the White Sox signed, say, Machado, suddenly every team out there with a major trade piece on the block would have another potential suitor that they might not have otherwise, as that would clearly switch the perception of Chicago as a team in rebuild mode to one that was suddenly again looking to acquire. For teams like the Toronto Blue Jays, Arizona Diamondbacks, and Cleveland Indians, that’s precisely the kind of domino falling that you’d like to learn from before making a call to trade, say, Marcus Stroman, Robbie Ray, or Corey Kluber, for instance.
The more teams you know might be in play to trade for your best players, the better...right?
That’s the same kind of signal the Cincinnati Reds made with their blockbuster deal with the Dodgers before Christmas. Adding Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp, Alex Wood, and Kyle Farmer signaled that the Reds - who had spent years shedding veterans and rebuilding their farm system - were finally one of the teams willing to swap prized prospects for win-now talent once again. The Reds were not in the market for those players a year ago, obviously, but teams with tradeable pieces now have the Reds to loop into the bidding process, ideally driving up the price of their most prized pieces.
In other words, it would certainly seem to behoove the teams that hold the biggest potential trade chips to wait until they know exactly how many teams will be in the mix for those pieces, and it’s likely they won’t know those numbers for sure until the biggest free agents start to sign.
For the Reds - who have some money to spend but certainly aren’t in the market for either Harper or Machado - there now becomes a waiting game. They’ve been connected to the likes of Stroman and Kluber so far this winter, among others, but both Toronto and Cleveland might just hold tight until Harper, or Machado, or both come off the board. Say, for instance, that the Dodgers - MLBTR’s pick to sign Harper for $420 million - don’t land Harper, and suddenly become a win-now team with that much financial prowess that didn’t get committed to one player. That could turn their focus to a completely different type of addition - like free agent starter Dallas Keuchel - or could prompt them to allocate that unspent cash and a few top prospects to land Kluber.
The scenarios here are endless, obviously, but the basic premise is this: when you’re packing the family car for a roadtrip, you generally put the biggest piece of luggage in the trunk first, right? Any team that signs Harper, or Machado, will be immediately getting a new big piece of luggage, and they’re not going to start packing the car until they know if they’ve landed that big piece. And for the rest of baseball that isn’t quite in the market for Harper/Machado but is still on the market for big pieces of a slightly lesser caliber, there’s become a holdup while we all wait to see just how much those are going to cost, too.
That, for now, is where the Reds are, in limbo while waiting for the biggest dominoes of the offseason to fall. With spring training inching ever closer, it’s likely that once one of Harper or Machado signs, the rest of the big pieces of this transaction season will move in very rapid fashion, at which point we’ll see the Reds back in the mix for some of the biggest pitching names out there.
Until then, we all just get to wait.
*Yes, now I do want pizza, thanks for asking.