CLEARWATER, FLA. — So now we finally have the answer to the baseball question of the ages, which has been debated since Bryce Harper and Manny Machado were barely old enough to vote.
Who would get more money when they both became eligible for free agency after the 2018 season?
The simple answer is Harper, but it’s not really that simple. He reportedly agreed to a 13-year deal worth $330 million with the Philadelphia Phillies on Thursday, breaking the record for the largest contract in the history of North American professional sports. It also means super agent Scott Boras can be seen in public again.
It isn’t that simple because the 10-year, $300 million contract Machado signed with the San Diego Padres last week calls for a significantly higher average annual salary, so he still could contend that he got the biggest free-agent contract in baseball history. The eight-year, $260 million deal just signed by Colorado Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado actually calls for a higher average salary than Machado, but Arenado wasn’t a free agent so there’s probably going to be an asterisk by it among Guinness World Records.
This certainly doesn’t settle anything when it comes to deciding whether Machado or Harper is the better player, but when you break both deals down it all makes a lot of sense.
Machado, 26, is the more valuable player today. He plays two key infield positions and had a better 2018 season. Their career stats are very similar, but Machado has a significantly higher wins-above-replacement total.
Harper, 26, is the guy you’d feel most comfortable giving the longest free-agent contract in history, because he’s got more bling — a National League Rookie of the Year Award and an NL MVP plaque — and he’s far less likely to create a public relations firestorm when he’s on the big stage.
True, Harper got into a scuffle with teammate Jonathan Papelbon in 2015, but — really — who could blame him for that?
In short, Machado got paid for what he is and Harper got paid for who he is.
Of course, just about any team would love to have either one of them and Harper’s new Phillies teammates were ecstatic when the news came across that he finally chose them over the San Francisco Giants.
“It’s very exciting for us,’’ said veteran outfielder Andrew McCutchen, who signed with the Phillies as a free agent in December. “We definitely got better. The lineup got better. We thought we were a complete team. Now, we’re even more of a complete team. It’s going to be fun.”
Starting pitcher Aaron Nola, who won 17 games last year with below-average run support, is looking forward to pitching with a lineup that has been seriously upgraded.
“No doubt,’’ he said. “We see it in spring training right now. The guys we’ve added to the team have been the best at their positions for years and we get Bryce, who’s been the best at his position for years. It’s a pretty good lineup.”
Phillies manager Gabe Kapler was a bit more measured in his reaction, since the deal has not been officially announced.
“One thing that we know about Bryce is that he's an intense individual,’’ Kapler said. “He plays the game especially hard. He cares about winning, has historically cared deeply about his teammates and had historically produced on the baseball field. One of the best players in baseball, so certainly that has been evident throughout the entire process, not just for us, but for all the other clubs as well.”
No doubt, they’re saying a lot of the same things at the Padres’ complex in Peoria, Ariz. Machado joins last year’s free-agent surprise signing, Eric Hosmer, to augment a promising team with a deep farm system.
Machado could be in San Diego through the 2028 season unless he exercises his opt-out clause after five years. Harper could be in Philadelphia through 2031, just a year shy of his 40th birthday.
By that time, we should know for sure which one was worth more money.