“Hot stove league” gives way to spring training

We aren’t quite half way through February yet, but pitchers and catchers are reporting to Spring Training today. The big story of the off-season is what didn’t happen. Prize free agents Bryce Harper and Manny Machado didn’t sign with any club. Most of the rest of the free agent crop didn’t either.

This surprising development has players complaining about collusion (the non-Russia kind). However, I think what has really happened is that all those Ivy League types in top management and “analytics” departments figured out that the contracts desired by superstars and those desired by aging average players usually just don’t make sense.

If there is collusion, someone forget to tell the Washington Nationals management. The Nats, whose general manager Mike Rizzo is an old-school baseball guy, offered Harper $300 million for ten years. When Harper turned the deal down, the Nats took it off the table and spent generously on a collection of free agents.

In came Patrick Corbin (six years, $140 million), Anibal Sanchez (2 years, $19 million), Kurt Suzuki (2 years, $10 million), Brian Dozier (1 year, $9 million), and Trevor Rosenthal (1 year, $7 million). Each of these additions shores up a glaring weakness. Along with Yan Gomes and Kyle Barraclough, acquired in trades, they should make for an improved team even in Harper’s absence.

Where will Harper end up? The latest report has him signing either with Philadelphia or San Francisco. For how much money? No one seems to have a clear idea.

Might Harper wind up with the Nats? Not for $300 million for 10 years, I’m pretty sure. I don’t think the Nats can afford that deal now, having committed so much money to Corbin and needing a big chunk of change if they want to re-sign star third baseman Anthony Rendon next off-season and quality shortstop Tre Turner after that.

If Harper is forced by the market to accept a lesser deal, there may be an outside chance he will return to the Nats. The team says its outfield is solid without Harper. But questions surround all five likely members of that outfield.

Will Adam Eaton finally have a full year of good health? Will Juan Soto replicate his sensational rookie season? Will rookie Victor Robles live up to the hype? Will Michael Taylor lower his strikeout total to an acceptable level? Will Howie Kendrick be the same player after a year out due to injury?

Even if the answer to each of these questions is affirmative, the Nats are still a better team with Bryce Harper. But I doubt that his price will come down to a level that’s acceptable given the team’s other financial obligations.

As for Machado, rumor has it that San Diego is aggressively pursuing him (the Padres have also been mentioned in connection with Harper). Machado is said to prefer the New York Yankees, but might have to take a shorter-term deal with them. Other destinations being mentioned are Philadelphia and the Chicago White Sox.

For what it’s worth.

When the dust settles, one thing seems certain: the players and their union will be unhappy. With the expiration of the collective bargaining agreement on the horizon, this does not bode well for MLB.

The league is also seriously considering major rule changes. It will need to offer some that will help players financially.

I’ll have more to say about this in an upcoming post.

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