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A New Approach to Harper and Machado

The two biggest prizes in this year’s free agent market, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, are both seeking contracts in the neighborhood of $300 million over ten years, but they may to settle for a little less than that. No team wants to get stuck paying $30 million a year for either of these players once they are in their mid-thirties. Despite this, they are both seeking, and will probably receive, long term contracts in excess of $250 million.

The Yankees would benefit from both of these players, but are unlikely to tie up more than half a billion dollars over ten years for them. However, there is another solution, one that would require a new approach to free agency. The Yankees could blow the market open without hurting the long term prospects for the team by offering both players much shorter contracts for significantly more money annually. For example, twin contracts for four years $140 million each would only cost the Yankees a total of $280 million between 2019-2022.

From the Yankees perspective, the logic of those contracts is obvious. They would secure the services of two of the game’s premier players for the prime’s of their careers. The four years the Yankees would get from Machado and Harper would coincide with the most productive years of Judge, Stanton, Severino, Sanchez, Torres and the rest of the team’s young nucleus. The Yankees would still need pitching, but they would also have some capacity for trades and free agent signings every after these moves.

The Yankees would be setting new records for annual salaries and would draw criticism for that, but that is a relatively minor concern-or maybe no concern at all. This criticism would be more than outweighed by knowing that these contracts would be very finite with, barring injury, no chance of the Yankees being saddled with huge contracts for marginally valuable players as has been the case with, for example, CC Sabathia and Jacoby Ellsbury in recent years.

Many free agent contracts today include opt outs for the player after a few years. This is effectively an insurance policy for the player who can sign a bigger contract if they play well during the first years of the initial big contract, but if they begin to decline, they can simply stay with the existing contract. One way to understand the approach here is that they Yankees would be getting the pre-opt out years of these two great players, but just paying more for those years.

For Machado and Harper, this would entail some risk. If they sign elsewhere, they could each get roughly $280 million over ten years. This option would guarantee them half of that, but to make the full amount they would need to get six year deals for a total of $140 million each coming off of their age 30 seasons. This seems possible, but only if they remain good players over the course of the contracts I propose the Yankees give them. However, given that ballplayers the caliber of Harper and Machado generally have high opinions of their abilities, and these two do not appear to be exceptions, this risk averse approach might appeal to them.

It is also true that even if these players retired after their four years with the Yankees, to pursue careers as professors, bowlers, mimes or anything else, they would still have made enough money to keep their families living very well for generations. In this case the money is important up to a point, but after that it is a measure of status more than anything else. Making Machado and Harper the two highest paid players in history, on a per annum basis, would be a source of great status for them while keeping the door open for future earnings that could easily exceed or meet the total of $280 million or so they are each worth now.

This bold and unusual approach to free agency would reflect the growing awareness across MLB that players in their 30s are considerably less valuable than those in their 20s and that few big multi-year contracts work out in the long run while many teams who sign players to these contract regret them well before the deals are even half over. Albert Pujols, Jacoby Ellsbury and Mark Melancon are just some recent examples of this phenomenon. This might push teams towards shorter contracts with higher annual compensation for free agents in general, but that could be a good trend that would make players more fairly compensated when they are actually producing the most value. Regardless of the big picture impact on the game, signing Harper and Machado to high value shorter term contracts, even if the annual salary seems astronomical, would allow the Yankees to use their resource advantage wisely while giving them a real shot to win a few more rings over the next four years.

Photo: cc/Keith Allison


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