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Bryce Harper, Manny Machado and other stars remain free agents. What's going on?

Washington Nationals right fielder Bryce Harper looks on from the bench during the Nationals' final home game of the 2018 season on Sept. 26.
Washington Nationals right fielder Bryce Harper looks on from the bench during the Nationals' final home game of the 2018 season on Sept. 26. (Manuel Balce Ceneta / Associated Press)

Neither Bryce Harper nor Manny Machado plies his trade as a pitcher or a catcher, so this week’s milestone is imprecise but still significant. As battery mates report to Arizona and Florida during the next few days, to be followed by the rest of the rosters next week, the central mystery of this bleak baseball winter remains unsolved. Neither Harper nor Machado has found a home for the 2019 season, and neither appears particularly close to finding one.

The same can be said for former Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel, seven-time All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel, five-time All-Star outfielder Adam Jones, two-time All-Star third baseman Mike Moustakas and dozens of other qualified major-league players. Yet Harper and Machado were supposed to be different, the two-man tandem expected to thaw the spending freeze that has overtaken the sport in the past three years.

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“What team out there wouldn’t want a Bryce Harper, a Manny Machado or a lot of the free agents out there?” San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey said at his team’s FanFest in San Francisco this past weekend. Both are 26. Harper is a former MVP who has made six All-Star teams. Machado is a four-time All-Star who hit 37 homers in 2018 and can play either shortstop or third base.

But it turns out, the answer to Posey’s question is: The overwhelming majority of the industry, at least not at the prices the players desire and which precedent suggests they deserve. Harper and Machado aimed to exceed the $325-million deal handed to Giancarlo Stanton by the Miami Marlins in 2014. Neither may reach that mark.

Posey was asked about Harper because the Giants met with Harper in Las Vegas last week. The meeting leaked because Giants CEO Larry Baer took a photograph with a fan inside the Bellagio, and “it’s kind of hard to deny when your CEO gets made in the casino,” president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi said. And the meeting happened only because Harper was unsigned in February, which presented an opportunity for the bargain-seeking Zaidi and the deep-pocketed Giants.

San Francisco can afford Harper. The team has spent a relative pittance, about $8.5 million, on major-league free agents this winter. That puts the Giants in line with the overwhelming majority of the industry. Only seven teams have spent more than $50 million on big-league free agents: the Dodgers, the Washington Nationals, the New York Yankees, the New York Mets, the Philadelphia Phillies, the Boston Red Sox and the Texas Rangers.

Which begs the question: What is the rest of the sport doing?

Free agency is not the only way to improve a roster. The Cincinnati Reds improved their team through trades, acquiring Yasiel Puig, Alex Wood and Matt Kemp from the Dodgers while swinging a deal with the Yankees for former All-Star pitcher Sonny Gray. The St. Louis Cardinals netted star first baseman Paul Goldschmidt from the Arizona Diamondbacks. As the Seattle Mariners tore down their roster, the Mets grabbed closer Edwin Diaz and second baseman Robinson Cano, while the Yankees augmented their starting rotation with James Paxton.

All those trades cost teams assets in the form of prospects. To sign a free agent requires only money. In 2013, the Boston Red Sox rose from a last-place finish the year before to a championship after signing seven free agents to their roster. That approach feels like a relic from another lifetime, rather than a strategy employed by a World Series winner this decade.

The concept of trying to spend to vault into playoff contention has fallen out of favor with this generation of risk-averse, depth-conscious executives. So Zaidi has focused on the lower tier of the 40-man roster in his first winter running the Giants. The Mariners and Diamondbacks joined the Miami Marlins among the ranks of teams selling off crucial assets. The Chicago White Sox have engaged with Machado, but have not convinced him to sign. The San Diego Padres continue to kick the can down the road in their perpetual rebuild.

Even for teams with October hopes, free agency now serves as a vehicle for augmenting a roster instead of reshaping it. So Milwaukee signed former Dodgers catcher Yasmani Grandal and otherwise stood pat. Similar patterns appeared with Colorado and infielder Daniel Murphy, Houston with outfielder Michael Brantley and Atlanta with third baseman Josh Donaldson.

None of those players received longer than a two-year contracts. Teams are willing to spend, but on their terms. The Yankees have flirted with Machado, while still doling out nearly $140 million on the market to players like reliever Zach Britton and second baseman D.J. LeMahieu. The Phillies struck a deal for Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto last week, and have stayed engaged on both Harper and Machado. But that didn’t stop them from signing outfielder Andrew McCutchen and trading for shortstop Jean Segura. The Dodgers opted for outfielder A.J. Pollock at $55 million rather than a nine-figure commitment to Harper.

Fans in New York and Philadelphia and Los Angeles may clamor for star power. But at least their teams made an effort to improve. More troubling is the behavior of the Chicago Cubs, who have sat out of the free-agent market after a series of expensive misses. Jason Heyward has been an offensive liability through the first three seasons of his eight-year, $184-million deal. Yu Darvish made eight starts in the first year of his six-year, $126-million deal. And the availability of reliever Brandon Morrow, signed to be the team’s closer last winter, is uncertain as the spring begins.

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The opening of spring training usually serves as a metaphor for renewal. Yet this year it will function more as a reminder, that the two brightest lights on the free-agent market have not yet found employment, and the industry is not exactly clamoring to change that.

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