Bryce Harper and Manny Machado continue to co-headline this offseason’s free agent class. They’re discussed on a daily basis and rightfully so. They’re two of the best players in Major League Baseball and just 26. Debate is aplenty on whether Harper and Machado are worthy of record-setting contracts, and who would be the better signing. But when it concerns which star teams should pursue, it comes down to what they would rather gamble on: scattered MVP production, or steady stardom?
Harper made his MLB debut on April 28, 2012 and was one of the most discussed athletes in the country beforehand. Whether it be landing on the cover of Sports Illustrated, hitting a 502-foot home run in Tropicana Field at 16, or being selected by the Washington Nationals with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 MLB Draft, Harper’s presence on a major-league diamond was one of the most anticipated debuts in quite some time.
In his rookie season, Harper appeared in 139 games, hit near the top of the Nationals order, and was productive at the plate. Hitting .270 while totaling 22 home runs and 59 RBIs, the 19-year-old displayed the ability to hit at a competent level in the big leagues. While he was, at times, shaky in the field, Harper hustled to get behind flyballs and played with aggression. In the postseason, he hit just .130, but blasted a third inning home run to right field in Game 5 of Washington’s National League Division Series matchup with the St. Louis Cardinals.
In 2013, Harper’s production from all aspects of the game was similar to that of his rookie season. Hitting .274 while totaling 20 home runs and 58 RBIs, he was a steady force in the middle of the Nationals lineup, but was limited to 118 games due to injury. The ensuing season, yet again, was more of the same for Harper. He hit .273, but was limited to 100 games, resulting in him totaling career-lows in home runs (13) and RBIs (32). But Harper stepped up in a big way in the postseason.Bryce Harper and Manny Machado are very similar players, but in many ways, they are polar opposites. @RPStratakos writes about the two biggest free agents in years.Click To Tweet
Despite the Nationals losing to the San Francisco Giants in the NLDS in four games, Harper hit .294 which, most notably, featured him blasting three home runs, including one over the right field wall at AT&T Park and into the Pacific Ocean. The Nationals scored just nine runs in the series, but Harper accounted for four RBIs, and instilled the notion that he was finally becoming the superstar player the baseball world had been waiting for him to become. And in 2015, he solidified that notion.
From the get-go, Harper was electric at the plate. He was one of the hardest outs in the sport, patient in the batter’s box, and an immense source of power. Recording a career-best .330 batting average and .460 on-base percentage while totaling 42 home runs and 99 RBIs in 153 games, Harper became the youngest unanimous Most Valuable Player in MLB history. Discussion sparked as to whether he was the best player in the sport, but 2016 was a puzzling step back for the NL MVP.
Hitting a career-worst .243 while totaling 24 home runs and 86 RBIs in 147 games, Harper was productive, but nowhere near his MVP-self. With that said, he was supposedly playing through a shoulder injury in the second half of the season, and based on the way he bounced back at the plate in 2017, there could be validity to that notion. At the same time, a freak injury running on the first base bag in an August matchup with the Giants sidetracked Harper’s superb season. With that said, hitting .319 while totaling 29 home runs and 87 RBIs in just 111 games is very impressive. But what has people questioning Harper more than anything else is his rollercoaster 2018 season.
Harper’s impending free agency was the most discussed topic surrounding the Nationals in 2018. He began the year strong, looking like an MVP candidate, but went into an immense slump that was headlined by his average falling as low as .209 in June. Then, he recovered, began hitting with more consistency, and finished with a .249 batting average while also totaling 34 home runs and a career-high in RBIs (100) and walks (130).
The first seven years of Harper’s career have been defined by an MVP campaign, emotion, and scattered results. It took a few years for the elite version of Harper to present itself, but once it did, it was something special. Meanwhile, there are many up and down, puzzling seasons to offset the great campaigns he’s embarked on. So, what is Harper: a mix of the 2015 MVP and 2017 hitter, or a mix of the 2016 and 2018 hitter? Harper’s ability to draw walks and lockdown right field are underrated. He has a good eye, isn’t your typical middle-of-the-order hitter, and can and has played all three outfield positions.
Harper is 26, may get even better with age, and there’s nothing wrong with a team wanting to sign him to a mega-contract to be a franchise player — banking on his upside going forward. On the other hand, if a team is looking for steady and probable results, Machado would make more sense than Harper.
Machado made his MLB debut on August 9, 2012 with the Baltimore Orioles, but played for the bulk of their remaining games that season. While he hit just .262 in the regular season and .158 in the postseason, the rookie third baseman totaled 26 RBIs in 51 games, was impressive in the field, and had two big postseason at-bats (an RBI single against the Texas Rangers in the American League Wild Card Game and a home run against the New York Yankees in Game 3 of the ALDS). All in all, Machado showed promise in the two and a half months he played in 2012 and gave the Orioles reason to believe he could build off his success going forward — which he did.
In 2013, Machado was a reliable source of offense in the Orioles lineup. Hitting .283 to go along with 14 home runs and 71 RBIs, he was a bright spot for an Orioles team that missed the playoffs. Unfortunately for Machado, he suffered a gruesome leg injury in the final week of the regular season which limited him to 82 games in 2014 — severely limiting his production. After the devastating blow and injury-riddled 2014 season, Machado came back better than ever.
In 2015, Machado appeared in every game the Orioles played, and he made the most of the opportunity. Hitting .286 while totaling 35 home runs and 86 RBIs, he established himself as one of the best infielders in the sport. The ensuing seasons were more of the same. In 2016, he hit a career-best .294 while totaling 37 home runs and 96 RBIs. In 2017, he hit a career-low .259, but still totaled 33 home runs and 95 RBIs.
The biggest storyline surrounding Machado and the Orioles in 2018 was the infielder’s impending free agency, as well as him making the switch from third to shortstop, but it didn’t halt any of his heroics at the plate. Through mid-July, Machado was hitting .315 and boasting 24 home runs and 65 RBIs, but in the blockbuster of the summer, the Orioles traded him to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Machado’s production tailed off a bit, as he hit .273 with the Dodgers, but he still totaled 13 home runs and 42 RBIs. The biggest storyline and legacy of Machado’s Dodgers tenure, though, was what transpired in the postseason.
Throughout his career, Machado has dogged a great deal of groundballs, but given that he was playing in the L.A. spotlight, there were more eyeballs glued to his every move — and the postseason electrified that aspect of his game. He didn’t hustle down the first base line on groundballs often, proclaimed he’ll never be “Johnny Hustle,” drove his knee through Milwaukee Brewers first baseman Jesus Aguilar‘s calf in Game 4 of the NLCS — leading to a confrontation — and jogged down the first base line on a flyball he hit in Game 3 of the World Series, assuming it was a home run, when it, in fact, went off the wall.
The 2018 postseason negatively impacted the general perception of Machado; there’s no doubt about it. His defense is also a mixed bag. Machado has pulled off a number of highlight reel snags, but he’s also committed a lot of errors at third and shortstop. At the same time, he’s a consistent and reliable everyday player. Machado is a career .282 hitter, has totaled 33-plus home runs a season since 2015 and is coming off the most productive season of his career at the plate. In his split time with the Orioles and Dodgers, Machado recorded a career-best .297 batting average and .367 on-base percentage while totaling 37 home runs (which ties a career-high) and 107 RBIs (which is another career-high).
You know what you’re getting with Machado, albeit, at times, the lack of hustle is discouraging. But consistency and durability are two vital elements to Machado’s game that can be overlooked. If a team is going to give someone a record-setting contract, having that player be a consistent force is pivotal, and that’s exactly what Machado is. He’s hit below .275 in a complete season just once and is a steady run producer. He’s also appeared in over 155 games in five of the last six seasons.
When categorizing the best players in MLB, Harper and Machado are in the same class. They each came into the league in 2012, are 26, versatile, and cancel out each other’s offensive production. They, of course, have their weaknesses when it comes to landing a earth-shattering contract. Harper has been inconsistent at the plate and missed extended time to injury. Meanwhile, Machado is accused, by some, as being lazy on the basepaths and perhaps doesn’t have much room for growth.
If Harper at his best is the player a team gets for the next eight, or so, seasons, then he’s a superstar. And even if Harper is inconsistent, he’s still an elite ballplayer. On the other hand, if Machado continues to be one of the most consistent, high-end hitters in the sport, you could argue he’s the safer signing. At the end of the day, it’s a matter of whether you prefer scattered historic production, or consistent high-end production; there’s no right or wrong answer. Harper and Machado are each gifted players who haven’t even entered their primes.