For the last two seasons, one of my jobs has been to talk with Giants fans about their team. It’s ... been a rough two years. Once you get past, “Boy, they sure are lousy,” followed by five seconds of uncomfortable silence, the conversation needs fuel. This is why I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the possibility of Bryce Harper signing with the Giants, which understandably provokes strong reactions.
One of the lines that I read or heard, time and time again, was that the Giants needed to avoid Harper and start a full rebuild. It was a constant refrain, and the idea of rebuilding and spending money were presented as directly opposed to each other. Don’t sign Harper. Rebuild! Don’t spend more money. Rebuild!
Friends, if I have one lesson about this offseason, it’s that rebuilding teams have the most reasons to mess around with players like Bryce Harper or Manny Machado. Do not laugh at the bad teams looking to spend big on young superstars. Encourage them. For they’re not only trying, but they’re putting themselves in a better position to win if the pendulum swings back in their favor.
Now, the Giants might be a bad example because there are legitimate reasons why they shouldn’t sign Harper. Any investment in a left-handed hitter who isn’t Barry Bonds might be a waste in AT&T Park. They might have the highest payroll in baseball with Harper and still be lousy. They’re saddled with all sorts of huge contracts to players in their 30s, most of whom aren’t likely to be All-Stars in 2019. That’s if they can even contribute beyond Instagram at all.
But take the White Sox, for example. Jon Morosi reports that the White Sox are considering both Harper and Machado, which means they’d agree to pay two players — for a decade or more — about as much as the entire A’s roster made in 2018. That’s a scary idea! And there were more than a few folks on Twitter and different message boards who hated the plan or chuckled at the futility of it. The concern was simple enough to explain:
Why now? The White Sox are awful. They just lost 100 games. With Harper and Machado, they might lose 85 if everything goes right.
That’s not incorrect. Slap Harper and Machado on any bad team, and they’ll probably still be bad. Just ... less so. One or two players can’t take a historically awful team to the postseason because that’s not how baseball works.
But the White Sox have a robust farm system, and they, let’s see here, plan on being good in the future. Let’s say they sign Bryce Harper for 10 years.
In 2019, he’ll be 26.
In 2020, he’ll be 27.
In 2021, he’ll be 28.
In 2022, he’ll be 29.
Absolutely none of us know if the White Sox will contend by 2020, much less 2022. If the 2013 Astros can turn into the 2015 Astros, anything can happen in two years. Four years ago, the Cubs entered the offseason as a joke, and the Orioles finished 25 games ahead of the Red Sox. In four years, Harper and Machado won’t even be 30. The odds are good that they’ll help any team within that span.
This gets us to the only reason a team shouldn’t want Bryce Harper or Manny Machado, though. Ready? I’ll make it a bigger font for the people in the back.
The only reason a team shouldn’t want Bryce Harper or Manny Machado is if their contracts would make it impossible to afford players who make that baseball team better.
That’s it. That’s the reason. That’s the only reason. And if you’re running a bad team, especially one with a bottom-scraping payroll, it really, really doesn’t apply to you.
Here’s an example: Let’s say the Astros are crunching the numbers and they realize that in order to keep Jose Altuve, George Springer, Alex Bregman, and Carlos Correa through 2022, they would have to spend (x) dollars. If they sign Harper for (y) dollars, then (x+y) dollars would put them past a reasonable threshold and would harm their ability to fill out a 25-man roster. One of those players would have to go, and it’s likely that Harper would be the worst value out of the five.
For the most part, though, bad teams don’t have this problem. If they aren’t spending their money on Harper or Machado, they aren’t somehow divvying up the money among five reasonably priced free agents who will make the team exponentially better. The free-agent market isn’t built like that. A bad team could have spent $35 million on Wade Davis and Eric Hosmer last year. Or they could have spent it on Brandon Morrow, Lance Lynn, and Jay Bruce. Or they could have spent it on Jonathan Lucroy, Logan Morrison, Mitch Moreland, Steve Cishek, Welington Castillo, and Joe Smith. There were a lot of ways to spend $35 million last offseason.
I’m just not sure any of them were better than paying someone like Harper or Machado $35 million. Not unless a crystal ball or time machine is involved.
This is because free agents are historically awful gambles, with most teams regretting their decision just one year later. Look at last offseason, for example. J.D. Martinez and Lorenzo Cain were absolute hits, but there are so many instant regrets.
So let’s amend that truism, then. Free agents are historically awful gambles ... unless you can sign an otherworldly talent who is 26 or younger.
At that point, oh, heck yeah, go for it. Alex Rodriguez hit 424 home runs in the decade after he left the Mariners in free agency. He averaged seven wins a year. Vladimir Guerrero wasn’t a perfect bargain, but he definitely gave the Angels their money’s worth. The Tigers paid ultra-star money to Miguel Cabrera to keep him around for his 20s, and he rewarded them with milestones and a pennant. Signing young players doesn’t always work; signing young superstars usually does. The trick is figuring out which young players qualify.
Harper and Machado probably qualify. Here’s the obligatory list of players who hit 150 homers or more before turning 25. It’s a list of players who would have made teams better for years to come. More than half the list are players who made the Hall of Fame, will make the Hall of Fame, or have the numbers to but can’t get in because of PED ties. And if you restrict that list to players with an on-base percentage as high as Harper’s, it gets even more exclusive and impressive.
Bad teams should want these players to build around, to anchor the roster while everything else is sorted out. They should want these players so that they don’t feel pressured to trade away all of their best prospects if they start contending ahead of schedule (see: all of the talent the Astros and Brewers have parted with over the last couple seasons). They should want these players because they’re like municipal bonds, almost guaranteed to hold a chunk of their value, in an offseason wasteland of junk bonds, and they’ll take the cost certainty as long as the total payroll is low and the rookies and youngsters are cheap.
Bad teams should want these players because nobody wants to watch a crappy team. C’mon. Make your teams less crappy, crappy teams.
Teams like the White Sox, with a farm system that should start spitting out underpaid yeomen soon, should be interested. Teams like the Braves, with a roster that is already overloaded with underpaid yeomen, should absolutely be interested. You can quibble about the rich teams like the Red Sox, Cubs, or Yankees and what their owners can afford (which is quite a lot), but it’s malpractice for any financially solvent low-payroll team not to consider a long-term superstar in his mid-20s just because the current roster is repugnant.
I’m talking to you, Orioles. I’m talking to you and looking at you dead in the eye.
The worst-case scenario for a team like the Orioles or Royals or White Sox or Padres would be Harper or Machado signing for big money and then declining as soon as the team is contending, which would prevent them from making necessary upgrades. That’s fair, except this premise is suggesting that either Harper or Machado decline before they turn 30, which isn’t something that any forecasting model would project, or that the team won’t contend for at least five or six years, which is a dumb approach for any team to take. Seriously, look at the difference between the 2013 and 2015 Astros. It’s worth it.
There are precedents, and they’re imperfect. Magglio Ordoñez signed with a miserable Tigers team, and he was perfectly suited to help them win a pennant just a couple years later. Jayson Werth looked like a boondoggle for a Nationals team that had never done anything, and he was right there to help when they became perennial contenders.
Harper and Machado are better than either of those players were. They’ll be right there for a bad team that’s suddenly good.
When it comes to 25-year-old players with four or more All-Star appearances (Harper has six), don’t worry too much about the exact path your future will take. Just know that the odds are excellent that those players will help a team win, probably an awful lot, within the next few years. Just know that it’s hard not to stumble into a contending season, especially with the help of these young superstars. And if it looks like a custom paint job on a ‘75 Vega next year, don’t sweat it too much. Next season probably won’t be the last one in baseball history.
Probably. Don’t know if you’ve cracked open a newspaper lately, but ...
If it’s not, though, then bad teams should sign the good, young, and expensive players. They should enjoy their successes while the rest of the team bumbles around them. And when that team is ready to dominate, they should have an All-Star already in place.
Rebuilding and spending aren’t mutually exclusive. When it comes to bad teams with low payrolls, they’re actually very complementary.