‘Staring Contest’ to Blame as Bryce Harper, Manny Machado Remain Unsigned

There’s more to the sluggish free agent market than just the status of Bryce Harper and Manny Machado up at the top, but those guys remaining unsigned has certainly jammed things up. The most obvious reason for the drawn-out process is that owners love their wealth and aren’t willing to set new records for either annual or total contract value, though Ken Rosenthal writes in The Athletic that it’s more than just a matter of asking prices being so high ($).

Even though Rosenthal isn’t necessarily putting forth anything novel, since all of these things have been discussed here at CI and elsewhere, it’s helpful to see everything lumped together. There’s also the possibility that another little wrinkle is mucking up the works, but we’ll use that as a nice little bow when we wrap this up.

The Phillies just made a splashy trade for J.T. Realmuto and they still figure as favorites for one of the Big Two. Thing is, the Phillies are well aware of that fact and they are willing to wait out the market while lounging on their pile of stupid money. The White Sox, likewise considered a big player, are reportedly unwilling to set the market.

The Nationals made the first offer to Harper and reportedly increased it earlier this winter to “much more,” but that’s either off the table or is structured poorly. Then you’ve got the Padres and Giants jumping into the mix for Harper, though that could simply be a matter of Scott Boras trying to lure teams in at a presumably lower cost in order to thaw his client’s frozen market.

Not as many teams have been mentioned in connection with Machado lately, so his teamlessness may largely be a matter of not wanting to sign first. As Rosenthal notes, the player who signs last “will benefit from gaining the sole attention of the remaining suitors” and can better dictate his market. So we’re left with a what is basically a staring contest taking place inside a hall of mirrors.

This is where a winter signing deadline might really help, though such a rule would probably hurt players more than it would teams. If Harper and Machado end up having to settle for deals that are well below the $300 million minimum they’re still seeking, however, there’s perhaps more of an argument to be made.

So this brings us back around to the idea I teased earlier, which is that there may be something else at play with Harper in particular. We’d heard early on that his preference was to play for the Cubs — beyond just his professed love of deep dish pizza — and that the Cubs likewise asked Harper to check back with them before signing elsewhere. Could that still be contributing to this waiting game?

With full understanding that even breathing the faintest hope into that idea will rile people up, it’s not out of the realm of possibility. Harper has presumably already turned down at least two offers of at least $300 million, so it may not be just about money. And word has it Boras has continued to check back with the Cubs on their financial status throughout the process, though it doesn’t seem anything has changed on that front.

When it comes to the likelihood that Harper ends up with the Cubs, I’ve maintained since late October that it’d take something like a miracle for it to happen. But I also believe holding out for such a miracle may be weighing in Harper’s decision, which means it’s holding Machado up to some extent as well.

Or it means I’m completely full of crap and have now resorted to shoehorning the Cubs into every conversation of Harper and Machado, regardless of context.

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