Position: Shortstop (if you ask him). Third base (if you ask Buck Showalter). Unprintable expletive (if you ask anyone from Milwaukee).
2018 Stats: .297/.367/.538, 37 HR, 146 OPS+, 140 wRC+, 5.8 WARP
How He Fits In: It seems like we’ve been preparing for the 2018-19 free agent class for three or four years now. And whenever that group has been mentioned, two names have stood out above the rest: Bryce Harper and Manny Machado.
They’re billed in that order in every story and it strongly reflects the public perception of both players. In the Chicago baseball public’s mindset, Machado has been the Alex Winter to Harper’s Keanu Reeves. This suggests that most Cub fans view Machado as something like a Harper consolation prize—like he was MLB’s case of Turtle Wax, year’s supply of Rice-A-Roni, or anything else “Weird Al” Yankovic lost on Jeopardy.
Except there’s this interesting thing about the two of them… to this point, Harper has had precisely two seasons where he amassed 5.0 WARP or higher. And Machado has had four.
Mind. Blown. When the Baseball Prospectus 2018 Annual inevitably gets optioned into a movie, it will be directed by M. Night Shyamalan.
Indeed, Machado’s 5.8 WARP from this past season fits quite snugly between his 5.7 year in 2016 and the 5.9 he amassed in 2013. And none of those excellent years matched his career high in 2015 when his 20.1 FRAA at third base spurred Machado to a sterling 7.3 WARP.
To this point anyway, the choice between the two players appears to come down to this: Machado’s more consistent excellence versus the tantalizing possibility of Harper’s transcendent ceiling. Because one of Harper’s two plus-5.0 WARP seasons was when he moved into Mantle, Mays, and Bonds’ Mount Olympus with 11.2 in 2015. For comparison’s sake, Mike Trout’s biggest WARP season to this date was 10.0. Ye gods.
(Now would be a good time to remember that Harper’s 2015 Nationals somehow astoundingly missed the playoffs—probably because they felt it was a good idea to employ a pitcher who tried to strangle their best player. Say what you will about Tyler Chatwood—at least he never went for Javy Báez’s windpipe. And even if he did, if Chatwood aimed for the throat, there’s a 100 percent chance Javy would get squeezed on the buttocks).
Machado can’t offer that kind of otherworldly production, if only for Harper’s great penchant for taking walks. But based on their respective track records thus far, it’s fair to say that he would give the Cubs a more consistently excellent year-to-year performance. Now it’s certainly within the realm of possibility that Harper again puts it all together as he enters his athletic prime and stays healthy enough to rampage through the league and permanently establish himself as one of the all time greats.
But right now, the choice between him and Machado is a lot harder than you would think. And that speaks volumes about the kind of elite player Machado has been for the past six years.
Why It Won’t Work: There are a few issues that need to be addressed when considering whether or not to bring Machado on board with one of the largest contracts in baseball history. And the most important of them also happens to be the least discussed.
Because for such an elite talent, Machado went through a horrific and lengthy slump only a year ago. He opened the 2017 season in a deep funk and didn’t escape it for the entire first half, slashing .215/.283/.418 over his first 80 games. In other words, he would have fit in perfectly with the 2017 Cubs. Although since he was still employed by the Orioles at this time, this made him the only player in baseball history to experience a 1983 World Series hangover despite not being born until 1992.
This was due in part to bad luck, as Machado’s BABIP over this stretch was only .223. And he returned to form in the second half of the season, turning in a .303/.338/.525 performance during which time that BABIP was a much more normal .302. Even so, the slump profoundly depressed his overall value as Machado was only worth 1.3 WARP for the entire season.
You know Gordon Wittenmyer’s drafts folder already contains a tweet reading “Congrats to Theo for giving $300 million to José Hernández v2.0.” And if Machado experiences any kind of similar slump, Wittenmyer will practically dislocate his typing finger mashing the “Send Tweet” button. So perhaps something good could come out of it after all.
Secondly, Machado’s defense remains a concern, especially since he insists on playing shortstop despite all evidence indicating he’s significantly better at third base. But there is still some hope for his future in this area. As Ken Rosenthal recently reported, Machado’s defense at short improved significantly when he was acquired by the Dodgers (-18 DRS to +6) due to perhaps the most Orioles reason ever: not realizing that they were allowed to position him a step further to his right.
Perhaps Baltimore concluded that Machado asked to move away from third because he was allergic to the base itself. Which would certainly go a long way toward explaining why he’d rather step on Jesús Aguilar’s ankle.
Now, it’s worth taking into consideration that this improvement was still over a small sample size of 66 games. And FRAA was still not impressed with Machado as a Dodger, grading him out at -1.5 during his tenure in Los Angeles. Nonetheless, the fact remains that there is at least a glimmer of hope that Machado might not be a butcher at shortstop.
On the bases? That’s a different story. This is the most overhyped angle but it still needs to be addressed. Machado clearly enjoys playing the heel on the field—which is perfectly fine and makes him part of a tradition that goes back to the beginnings of the game. But as his attempt to go the full Enos Slaughter on Aguilar demonstrated, he occasionally overplays his heeldom to the point where he actually tries to injure his fellow players.
In the past, Machado once responded to a hard tag by Josh Donaldson that knocked him to the ground by repeatedly striking A’s catcher Derek Norris in the head with his backswing and then flinging his bat at replacement third baseman Alberto Callaspo after being brushed back. He also spiked Dustin Pedroia on a slide into second base and sparked another beanball war with the Red Sox.
It should also be noted that Machado’s outburst against the A’s came after he felt Donaldson came at him too aggressively just after he had returned from a gruesome knee injury. And it’s also worth remembering that Pedroia himself absolved Machado of any blame for the spiking incident and criticized his own pitcher for escalating the situation by throwing at Machado’s head.
Even so, the fact remains that this kind of thing keeps happening wherever Machado goes. On several occasions, his play has crossed over from “hard nosed” into “dangerous.” Someone needs to remind Machado that there’s a reason MLB’s “Let the kids play” commercial ends with Ken Griffey Jr. instead of Ty Cobb.
All of this is to say that if the Cubs do sign Machado, they had best be prepared to deal with the brushfires that occasionally flare up with him. And it would also be nice if Machado could… you know… stop occasionally trying to physically attack his coworkers.
It’s already made him the least popular person in the city of Milwaukee. So maybe he’ll have to make some kind of gesture to get on Brewers fans’ good sides. Like writing a bunch of racist tweets.
Even with all that baggage, in the course of my research I was able to confirm that Manny Machado is still not Addison Russell or Daniel Murphy. And that alone is worth $30 million a year.
Alternatives: José Iglesias, Freddy Galvis, Jordy Mercer, Alcides Escobar, and pretty much any other leftover from the island of misfit shortstops.
Lead photo courtesy Winslow Townson—USA Today Sports