Were decisions made in a vacuum and not subject to any real-life parameters, the only possible answer to “Should the Cubs add Manny Machado?” is “YES!” Same goes for Bryce Harper, the other half of this winter’s dynamic duo of superstar free agents. And while we’re eventually going to need to let some air into the conversation, I do want to take a hypothetical pass at what’s already been a heated debate over which player is a better fit with the Cubs.
Both have already gotten top billing on the rumor circuit over the last 12-18 months, with Harper serving as his own hype man and Machado being linked in trade rumors up until the moment he went to LA. Now we’ve got oddsmakers putting the Cubs at even money to land the former National at the same time Chicago’s shaky middle-infield situation gives them a potential opening ripe for a big addition.
“The Cubs have to improve their offense, so you wonder if Manny Machado will be in the picture in free agency with Addison Russell suspended for 40 games because of his domestic abuse violation,” wrote Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe.
That blurb was just a small part of an extensive column that also included a nugget about Joe Maddon’s future, which I added as a note at the end of a piece regarding whether or not Maddon asked for an extension. This doesn’t really fall into the rumor category since Cafardo is really just throwing out the possibility based on what’s going on with the Cubs right now.
But if we operate under the assumption that the Cubs will sign one of either Machado or Harper — and that’s what we’re doing for the purposes of this post — which one really makes more sense? The answer likely comes down to how the Cubs feel about the other players they’ll be keeping around.
We saw last last week that Chicago Tribune beat writer Mark Gonzales had listed both Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ as likely to leave, which opens the door for a big-time outfielder. It’d be like a bizzaro hydra in which cutting off two heads means just one growing back in its place, which in this case would be Harper. After manning right and center throughout his career, he could shift to left with Jason Heyward and Albert Almora Jr. out there as well.
Gonzales also listed Russell as likely to leave, which is what Cafardo was driving at as well. Machado had been adamant that he wanted to play shortstop, so the Cubs could possibly woo him with that opportunity by sliding Javy Baez back to second base. The problem with such a move, though, is that it represents a significant defensive downgrade at a premium position.
And that’s compared to either Russell or Baez, the latter of whom finished the season at short and figures to remain there if Russell indeed departs.
“Think about it — [Javy] might be the best overall shortstop in the league right now, if you want to grade it all out with his offense and defense and baserunning,” Joe Maddon said shortly after Russell was placed on administrative leave. “American League, there’s some competition on that side. Overall, he’s a top three, top five shortstop in all of baseball right now, even though he hasn’t played there a whole lot.”
But what if Machado isn’t so intractable when it comes to his desire to play short? Fancred’s Jon Heyman wrote in August that the former Oriole “is willing to play third base for the right team,” and he’s proven to be an elite defender at the corner. Kris Bryant saw quite a bit of time in the outfield this past September, so clearing room in the outfield could accommodate Javy, Machado, and Bryant on the left side of the field.
The added bonus from a personal standpoint would be Machado getting to play alongside Almora, something the childhood friends have dreamed about since their Little League days in Hialeah, FL. That has the feel of exactly the kind of thing the Cubs would leverage in recruiting a free agent, kind of like supplying Tyler Chatwood with information about local hospitals and OB/GYNs for his pregnant wife.
Except, you know, they’d like to get slightly better results from Machado — or anyone, for that matter — than they got from Chatwood. Hell, that might be the case even if they converted Machado to the mound.
Boy, if I didn’t know better, I’d say I’m convincing myself that Machado is truly the better overall fit. And that may actually be the case if we look at everything other than offensive performance. On that front, however, Harper holds the edge.
Some will point to the flashy Las Vegan’s low batting average in 2018 or his sort of up-and-down year-over-year production, but his career .388 on-base percentage and .512 slugging are 53 and 25 points higher than Machado’s. And I’m guessing most folks would take a .382 wOBA and 140 wRC+ (Harper) over .349 and 120 (Machado), especially when the respective career samples are within 115 plate appearances of one another.
Harper also has an .880 career OPS in high-leverage situations as opposed to .828 for Machado, for what it’s worth. Either player would represent a significant upgrade over just about anyone they’d be replacing in the Cubs lineup, but Harper better shores up the team’s greatest weaknesses without potentially causing more.
Wait, so am I back to Harper for sure now? Yes…I think so. Maybe. The moral of the story is that there’s probably not a wrong choice here either way. Unless, you know, the guy the Cubs sign ends up falling off completely from his previous performance. But that’s just about impossible for an incredibly talented player who’s hitting free agency at such a young age (Machado turned 26 in July, Harper will be 26 on October 16).
Or, uh, it’s just about impossible for that to happen again. Right?