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No Team Should Be Worried About Overpaying Manny Machado or Bryce Harper

The young free agents are among the most valuable players ever to hit the market at such an early age. So why aren’t franchises trying harder to sign them?

Ringer illustration

It’s silly that the baseball world even needs this reminder, but here goes: Bryce Harper and Manny Machado are wonderful players, and any fan base should be happy to call either or both of them their own for the next decade.

There, that wasn’t so hard! Or at least, it shouldn’t be—except nobody seems to really want Harper, a 26-year-old former MVP and six-time All-Star, and nobody seems to really want to pay Machado, a 26-year-old four-time All-Star who might be even more desirable than his fellow free agent.

This is another tectonically slow offseason, and the free-agent freeze starts at the top. Spring training is just five weeks away, and Harper and Machado are still unsigned, with reports suggesting the dual stalemates have no end in sight. That’s a shift from the longtime speculation that they would challenge the record for largest contract, which belongs to Giancarlo Stanton at $325 million guaranteed over 13 years.

At the start of this offseason, MLB Trade Rumors thought Harper would get $420 million over 14 years, Machado $390 million over 13. FanGraphs was a bit more conservative but still predicted $330 million over 10 years for Harper and $279 million over nine for Machado. Jon Heyman and an “expert” he consulted placed both players in the $300-400 million range over 10 or 11 years. The Athletic did the same. Overall, the specifics varied by prognosticator, but the predictions featured a couple of key traits in common: at least $30 million per year in every case, and at least 10 years in every case but one.

Except now it’s unclear whether even the most conservative of those projections will end up reaching fruition. Only three teams—the Phillies, Yankees, and White Sox—have exhibited interested in Machado, who doesn’t yet appear to have an offer that’s reached $300 million or even come close to it. Philadelphia’s negotiations mostly have been shrouded in secrecy. Several December reports from the New York Post suggested the Yankees liked Machado, but not enough to award him $300 million over 10 years; other recent reports claimed the Yankees might not go over $200 million for him or even make an official offer. The White Sox’s offer to Machado is reportedly “closer to $200 million than $300 million,” and that team is apparently resorting to recruiting Machado not by paying him what he wants, but rather by turning the lineup into a family photo.

Harper, meanwhile, hasn’t appeared to generate even that much interest. The Nationals offered him $300 million over 10 years before the season ended, but after Harper declined to sign that extension, his old team doesn’t seem to be interested in raising its offer. He will meet with the Phillies this weekend and has inspired some vague rumors elsewhere, but the Yankees aren’t in on the former MVP, and even the Dodgers, who seem a natural fit for Harper after trading Yasiel Puig last month, haven’t jumped in on the proceedings.

Which is all a bunch of nonsense. Every team should want Machado and Harper because they are young and talented and available just for money, with no prospect demands or tricky trade fits needed. Present-day contenders should want Machado and Harper because they will improve a team’s odds of winning in 2019; future contenders should want Machado and Harper because they will still be relatively young and immensely talented by the time any rebuild yields another competitive cycle.

Some 10-year deals prove vast overpays in the long run, but that’s typically a reflection of those deals going to older players rather than long contracts representing sour investments in and of themselves. Machado and Harper are special—and quite different from, say, Robinson Canó, who signed with the Mariners after his age-29 season. (Canó’s deal also looks fair for both team and player so far. Large contracts tend to work out more frequently than front offices might have you believe.) A theoretical 10-year contract for Machado and Canó’s actual contract will contain some years in common; the age-32 season, for instance, would appear as part of both. But whereas Canó’s deal gave his team his declining seasons at age 36, 37, 38, and 39, Machado’s would give his team his prime years at age 26, 27, 28, and 29.

Moreover, Machado and Harper have been so productive already in their careers that they seem destined to remain so productive over the next decade, and historical precedent confirms this theory. Besides Machado, Harper, and Mookie Betts (who also just completed his age-25 season), 49 position players in modern MLB history have been worth at least 25 WAR through such a young age. Let’s see how they did in their next 10 years, on average. (Note: For the purposes of this analysis, we’re counting players in the middle of their next-10-year stretches only for the years they’ve completed, e.g., Jason Heyward’s age-26, -27, and -28 seasons are included but not age 29 or beyond. For players who didn’t last 10 subsequent seasons before retiring, we counted those final absent campaigns as zeroes, e.g., Grady Sizemore’s 0 WAR at ages 29, 30, and so on dilute the overall average.)

Here’s the average 10-year expectation for a player as good as Harper and Machado through age 25 (the full list of those players can be found here):

Age 26: 6.5 WAR
Age 27: 6.0 WAR
Age 28: 5.8 WAR
Age 29: 5.7 WAR
Age 30: 4.9 WAR
Age 31: 4.9 WAR
Age 32: 4.7 WAR
Age 33: 3.9 WAR
Age 34: 2.7 WAR
Age 35: 3.1 WAR

The FanGraphs explainer for wins above replacement uses 5 WAR as about the cutoff point for a superstar, so the team that places a winning bid on Machado or Harper will probably receive something like seven seasons of consistent star-level production and a relatively cushioned back end to boot. Overall, this average sums to 48.1 WAR over the decade. (And yes, perhaps Alex Rodriguez using steroids inflates the total a bit—but if anything, the total undersells the group at large because a handful of players lost time to World War II. Odds are Joe DiMaggio would have produced more than 0 WAR from age 27-29 had he been able to play baseball in that span, as Machado and Harper presumably will be.)

A few cautionary examples arise, which is to be expected in a sample of this size. Grady Sizemore amassed 25.7 WAR through age 25 but just 1.6 afterward, as injuries cost him essentially the rest of his career. Injuries and illness also sapped playing time and effectiveness from César Cedeño, Jim Fregosi, and Hall of Famer Travis Jackson, and Vada Pinson simply stopped hitting by his late 20s (also perhaps due to injury). It’s possible that Machado and Harper, who have both suffered serious injuries before—though not recently—could follow their pessimistic paths.

But that’s not a particularly likely outcome, and those exceptions are few and far between. Well more than half of the members of this group are in the Hall of Fame, and most of them continued playing well—or even improved—as they reached their late 20s. Heck, just look at a screenshot of the names next to Machado’s on the under-25 WAR leaderboard.

The 10 players surrounding Machado include seven first-ballot Hall of Famers; Joe DiMaggio, who would have been a first-balloter if not for confusion about his eligibility; Barry Bonds, who might be the best hitter to ever live; and Sherry Magee, who posted a near-Hall-worthy career and reached his prime more than a century ago. That’s not to say Machado is a lock to join his fellows in Cooperstown, but the comps are as encouraging as can be.

For owners concerned about fiscal frugality, we can also convert production predictions into estimated financial value. This isn’t the best way to judge players, but it aligns with contemporary front-office thinking. So let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that teams need to maintain an efficient dollar-per-win ratio for every player they sign. This almost certainly isn’t true, particularly for Machado and Harper’s top suitors: The White Sox and Yankees spent just 31 percent of their 2017 revenues (as estimated by Forbes) on their 2018 payrolls, by far the lowest in the majors. The Phillies (36 percent) and Dodgers (37 percent) were the other teams below 40 percent. The average MLB team spent 49 percent of its revenue, which would have dictated, for instance, a payroll north of $300 million for the Yankees. They could have signed Harper, Machado, and former free agent—and now National—Patrick Corbin with some room to spare.

But again, let’s assume that the Yankees for some reason can’t sign a free agent unless that player will outperform his contract, or at least match its payments with equivalent performance. How much, in this circumstance, should a team be willing to commit to a player of Machado and Harper’s caliber?

Quite a lot, it turns out. Certainly $300 million would be, at the very least, a fair deal. General estimates hold that on the free-agent market, 1 WAR is worth about $8 million, and that amount rises about 5 percent each year due to inflation. (Or at least it should, if leaguewide payrolls don’t continue to stagnate despite rising revenues.) Using this accounting, we find that if Machado and Harper produced at the historical average for the next decade, they would be worth $468 million over the next decade. Four-hundred-sixty-eight million! That’s about twice the amount teams are reportedly offering Machado.

Looking just at the previous players who have completed their 10-year runs, about three-quarters of them amassed more than $300 million in present-day value. And of the remaining quarter, more than half still amassed at least $200 million, which would perhaps represent an overpay if a team gave Machado or Harper near-record-breaking promises, but not by a huge deal. (An overpay of, say, $50 million spread over 10 years is small change for any team.) The probability of vast overachievement, moreover, far outweighs the probability of vast underachievement.

A similar finding emerges when looking just at this level of player in the divisional era (since 1969), to avoid old-timers like Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth possibly skewing the averages. The divisional era precedents for Machado and Harper see a bit more potential downside, but a measly $300 million would still represent a worthwhile gamble: On average, these precedents produced more than $400 million in present-day value over their next decade ($408 million by mean, $413 million by median).

Keying in on individual players who fit these criteria shows why. Andruw Jones aged about as poorly as possible for a player of this caliber; if Harper follows Jones’s deleterious aging curve precisely, he’d still produce $228 million worth of value for his new team over the next decade. David Wright missed nearly half of his possible games from age 26 to age 35 because of injury; Machado could follow his path and still produce $224 million. And those are near worst-case scenarios. Ken Griffey Jr. and Roberto Alomar are remembered for rapid deterioration, but their respective paths would yield nearly $400 million in value in today’s money. And, again, those are the below-average precedents.

Ultimately, Machado and Harper are two of the best young free agents ever, and among their forebears with that designation, only one (Heyward) could be considered a bust. It’s sufficiently bizarre that just a few teams have expressed any interest in generational free agents, and it’s further absurd that those interested teams haven’t been more willing to offer the money that would secure the prime years of possible future Hall of Famers.

Maybe the two 26-year-old stars will find the salary guarantees they want before the free-agent slog reaches its conclusion, and maybe this whole argument will be rendered moot. Maybe Machado and Harper really will flounder over the coming decade, and the stingy teams of 2018 will look smart from a dollar-per-win perspective. But every precedent shows the unlikeliness of that outcome—and reaffirms the notion that teams should just pay Machado and Harper what they want. Chances are they’ll be worth it, and more.