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Bryce Harper returns to Washington D.C. Manny Machado goes to Philadelphia. The offseason returns to its normal rhythms, the new normal rhythms, which sound a lot like the thump-thump-thump of owners swinging over-sized meat hammers. The few get their money, the rest make do with generational wealth or something close to it, and all of this is as reasonable a guess as any.
Or, you know, Harper and Machado wind up in, like, Chicago and New York or something. It’s all in the details now, in the whims of two young men and the folks around them who may be rooting for climate or location or the last dime or the coolest uni. Who knows. Probably the last dime. It’s in one last handshake, one last perk, one last look in the mirror and one last question: What do I really want?
The leanings around the league now seem to be on Harper returning to the devil he knows (and three-hundred-and-some-million dollars), Machado opting for the stupid money and shortstop for as long as he can bear it, and the four-team arms race developing in the National League East, which by this time next week or the week after could be the best and most competitive division in the game. Or, again, just to be clear, not.
The strategy for understanding any of it, meanwhile, is to stand outside ballparks in the middle of winter and watch Machado come and go with his agent, Dan Lozano, to watch Machado smile and say things that reveal as little as possible. Just as the strategy is to wait for word to trickle out that Harper was in Palm Springs for a meeting with the Nationals owner, or hosting the White Sox in Las Vegas, or waiting himself on the Phillies, or favoring various social media posts that may or may not be realistic.
The winter has found its pace, which in this case means it is trudging hard against the flashing red hand just beyond the crosswalk. Which is to say, earnestly and with heavy legs. The soundtrack is finger thrumming and a sigh. And a gentle bleat of a car horn.
(To this end, there appears to be growing support for a winter deadline or two that incentivizes teams, in particular, and also players and agents to pick up the pace a little. We’ll see about that. Others aren’t so sure. Time can be a budget-conscious general manager’s best friend, his best negotiating ally.)
Sometimes, but not always, the game ends where it makes the most sense. Today, that has Harper with the Nationals. It’s where the money is. It’s where the familiarity is. There is something romantic about finishing where one started, becoming a city’s brand in a sport in which it is difficult to establish a national one, to hang with a franchise that doesn’t always get it right but always tries, to be standing out in front when it does get it right. Maybe that matters less when you are 26. When there is nothing but prime years ahead of you and there’s still time to rectify the mess-ups. But Harper has been at this, planning this winter, for a decade, and surely along the way he’s acquired the wisdom of belonging. The Nationals seem sure to make a competitive offer, if not the best offer. Probably the best offer. He also can keep his beard.
One of the Chicagos might be fun. L.A. would be cool. New York has its upside. Philly is trending well. Maybe somewhere else, like St. Louis. At the end of the day, it’s good to come home to a place that feels like home, where everything is as you left it, where the neighbors gather the mail and you don’t even have to ask.
Today, that has Machado in Philadelphia, for a team that is so ready to be good again it practically has tears rolling down its cheeks. Home for Machado is gone, and that opened Philadelphia, Chicago, New York. It may also have opened other cities waiting out the heavy spenders, teams who’d go long on salary and short on term, teams who’d cut him loose again in four or five years. (More than one mid-market team is eyeing the Machado market and wondering if it could fall eventually into its short- and long-term financial constructs.) That does not appear to be Machado’s preference, however.
Sometimes a franchise and a free agent find themselves in the same place at the same time, one hungry for the player to which to tie its coming era, the other ready to get rich and settle down and play for something again. The Yankees would work. The Yankees always work. The White Sox would be interesting, but it is unlikely they will come with the highest bid and it would not appear they are ready to play for something. Yet. The Phillies are spending again, and will spend again even after a Machado commitment, and they are young in good places, settled in good places, and still bear the scars of their most recent rebuild. Maybe it’s not perfect. Maybe it’ll take some getting used to. Maybe the expectations for how to play don’t exactly suit your game. But, then, every new relationship is a negotiation, and a great player is a great player, and differences tend to get settled about the time everyone realizes that ball is going to clear the fence.
Harper in D.C. and Machado in Philadelphia might not happen at all. Two months into their free agencies, it’s possible neither knows his destiny. Just that there’ll be another phone call. Another meeting. A red hand flashing across the street.
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