Even in a years-long free-agency slowdown where teams have been reluctant to spend long-term on players who had accrued the service time to test the open market, Manny Machado and his ilk were supposed to be immune to this condition.
Yet as January rolls on and Machado, the onetime Orioles superstar, and fellow free-agent headliner Bryce Harper wait out a slow-forming market, it's become clear that's not the case.
Wednesday's spectacle — ESPN reporting Machado's offer from the Chicago White Sox as an unspectacular seven years at $175 million, and the strong denial from his agent Dan Lozano — was the latest chapter in an offseason for the two marquee names that hasn't unfolded as anyone expected.
The last time an agent put out a statement that publicly forceful, it was Dexter Fowler's agent Casey Close after the Orioles signed him but actually didn't. It takes what's perceived as a real wrong to draw that out of an agent, and no matter which side is objectively right on this small piece of information, it's a big issue that Lozano clearly sees as a big wrong. And he's got a point.
For all his faults, Machado's “Johnny Hustle” comments shouldn't have brought the overall value of his contract down $100 million. In every full season on his resume except for 2017, he's been worth at least five wins above replacement (WAR), according to FanGraphs, with four straight seasons of at least 33 home runs and a career's worth of elite third base defense on his resume through age 26.
The modern game, by Wednesday's news, values that with a free-agent contract that will barely crack the 20 richest in the game. There's plenty of logic in not handing out contracts to players who have already passed their primes. But Machado and Harper are going to be in their primes for at least half of their next deals and likely more than that on any contract they sign this offseason.
By WAR, only eight players were better than Machado in 2018. He's been in the top 10 in baseball in three of the past four years. Since the start of 2013, only five players have better than his 29 WAR.
If this is all a judgment on the litany of headlines Machado has made over the years — from the Josh Donaldson incident to his fight with Yordano Ventura to the feud with the Boston Red Sox or his playoff base-running aggression — then baseball has delivered a verdict that many might find fair. When a team is swallowing hard and giving out a nine-figure contract, some of those might be hard to get past.
But from a sheer baseball perspective, even if the figures being bandied about are the kind that create generational wealth, it all seems light for a player who those in Baltimore found can make quite a difference to a baseball team's fortunes. It's not the Orioles' problem anymore, and perhaps thankfully so, but it's become one for Machado and maybe the next generation of stars to follow him.