Schmuck: Orioles' Manny Machado, Nationals' Bryce Harper take different roads to free agency

There obviously will be no talk of a Beltway World Series when the Orioles and Washington Nationals renew their interleague rivalry starting Monday at Camden Yards. There will only be Manny and Bryce.

Two of baseball’s brightest young stars are headed for free agency at the end of this season and they are going about the very public quest to become the highest-paid player in the sport’s history in very different ways.

Well, off the field, at least.

Both Manny Machado and Bryce Harper entered the weekend ranked among the top 10 in the major leagues in home runs and RBIs, with Machado leading in the latter category. They both seem at peace with the “walk year” pressure that has undone some lesser lights, but that’s where the similarities end.

Machado, 25, has met the media side of the situation head on, engaging in group interviews in several large markets where his services might be desired. Harper, 25, only met it head on when he told reporters at the start of spring training that any questions about his contract situation would end the conversation.

“I will not be discussing anything relative to 2019 at all,’’ Harper said at the time. “I’m focused on this year. I’m focused on winning and playing hard like every single year. So if you guys have any questions after 2018, you can call [Scott Boras, Harper’s agent], and he can answer you guys. … If you guys do talk anything about that, then I’ll be walking right out the door.”

Not that anything Machado has said has been particularly enlightening. He has been cooperative and diplomatic, leaving just enough unsaid to allow for media speculation to go in whatever direction might make for the sexiest headline.

He’s here to help his team win. Whatever happens, happens. New York is a great place. Chicago is a wonderful town. Baltimore is close to his heart because the Orioles gave him his chance to play in the big leagues.

There’s no sense debating whether one approach or the other is the right one, because they both are. Every situation is different and no two situations could be much more different than the ones in which Machado and Harper reside.

The Orioles are so far out of contention that Machado could be playing in the National League by the end of next week. He has done everything within his power to keep the team relevant, but there’s only so much one guy can do.

If his contract situation is a distraction, that’s probably a good thing at this point. The Orioles entered Saturday with the second-worst record in the majors and appear close to embarking on a midseason rebuild that likely will begin with the end of Machado’s career in Baltimore.

In the meantime, Machado is probably right to conduct something of a charm offensive. He’s expected to command one of the biggest sports contracts ever and would do well to keep the national focus on the terrific season he’s having and the maturity he’s showing after some behavioral hiccups earlier in his career.

Harper is in a different place. The Nationals are locked in a tight NL East race with the surprising Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves, so he has no business drawing attention away from the team by campaigning for his next contract. The best thing he can do is continue to lead the Nats back toward the postseason and let their success enhance his reputation and value. He obviously recognizes that, or somebody recognized it for him.

That won’t stop the speculation about their 2019 destinations, which has been focused on both players for the past couple of years. Harper’s friendship with fellow Las Vegas native Kris Bryant bloomed into Chicago Cubs rumors last summer, when a photo of their wives posing together hit the internet with the hashtag #HarperToTheCubs.

During spring training, Machado’s first group interview produced nothing definitive about his future, but somehow led to a story in USA Today that stated, “Machado wants to be a Yankee, and, oh, how the feeling is mutual.”

Don’t know if the Cubs can afford both Harper and Machado, but rumors about the Cubs pursuing a deal for Manny — possibly including young Cubs shortstop Addison Russell — surfaced in recent weeks. Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein shot that one down on a Chicago radio show this past week, but the Cubs figure to be an interested party if Machado is still available in mid-July.

He might not be. Orioles baseball operations chief Dan Duquette said in April that his struggling club would wait until after Memorial Day to consider whether to begin unloading some of its pending free agents to improve the team’s minor league depth.

Not much has changed since then and that holiday is at hand.

There are logical arguments to be made for moving Machado soon or waiting until closer to the July 31 nonwaiver trading deadline. If history is any guide, the Orioles will wait as long as possible to make a decision of that magnitude, so Machado will have a few more chances to entertain and enable the national media.

The Nationals don’t have to worry about what to do with Harper. They need to win this year and they have the team to do it, so he’ll be around and his self-imposed gag rule will probably be enforced for the duration.

Vive la différence!

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

twitter.com/SchmuckStop

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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