Manny Machado

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Machado's former manager unsure how he'll respond

Tim Kelly
November 08, 2018 - 7:53 am
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When you invest over $300 million in a baseball player, is there a responsibility for them to be more than just a perennial All-Star that’s the team’s best player on the field? Or is baseball different than say football, where a star quarterback, in addition to playing the most important position in sports, leads by example and plays a big role in creating a team’s culture.

We may soon find out how Phillies general manager Matt Klentak, president Andy MacPhail and managing partner John Middleton feel about that question.

Forget for a second Manny Machado kicking Milwaukee Brewers first baseman Jesus Aguilar as he ran to first base in the National League East. Machado, in the midst of helping the Los Angeles Dodgers reach the World Series, had a variety of moments that showed less-than-desirable effort in the postseason.

After questionable effort in his attempt to run to first base on a groundball during Game 2 of the NLCS, Machado told Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic that he would never be a “Johnny Hustle” because that wasn’t “his cup of tea.”

This wasn’t a blowout on a hot summer day in June. This was Game 2 of the NLCS. Not running out a ball with your team down a game in a series that determines what National League team plays in the World Series is concerning. Publicly saying the equivalent of “It is what it is” when asked why you didn’t sprint to first is a red flag. Reminding the baseball world of the “Manny being Manny” era with your hustle on a ball that looked like it could leave the stadium off the bat (but didn’t) isn’t ideal. And blowing a bubble as you run out a ball hit down the third base line in the ninth inning of Game 4 of the World Series, who does that?

Former Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter managed Machado from his major league debut on Aug. 9, 2012 until he was traded to the Dodgers on July 19, 2018. Showalter spoke extensively to Joel Sherman of The New York Post regarding Machado, saying he has “more pluses than minuses” and is worth any maintenance that he comes with. But most notably, he did admit he isn’t sure how Machado when rewarded with a megadeal.

“Manny loves baseball, but who knows what happens when someone gets this kind of [financial] commitment,” Showalter told Sherman. “Will it make him more driven or more lackadaisical with that kind of commitment? No one is smart enough to know that. What I know is that his talent plays.”

Seemingly, Showalter, having managed Machado in over 800 games would have an idea of how Machado would respond to a historic contract. Perhaps he does and didn’t feel inclined to say it publicly. But think about some of the sport’s biggest position stars: Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Mookie Betts, Christian Yelich, Francisco Lindor, Alex Bregman, etc. It just feels hard to imagine any of their former managers publicly musing about whether or not their approach would decline if they were rewarded with a megadeal.

Last month, Hall of Fame writer Ray Didinger passed along a noteworthy opinion from an anonymous scout on how Machado will respond when he ultimately signs a lucrative free-agent contract.

“I talked to one guy who is into baseball. He’s a scout - I’m not going to name names, but he’s a scout. And I asked him the Machado-Harper question. And this was a month ago, so it was before this [Machado’s quotes about not being ‘Johnny Hustle’]. And I said ‘Who would you take?’ I said ‘I would take Machado.’ He said ‘I would take Harper.’ He said - it was exactly what you said Joe [DeCamara] - he said ‘I think Machado, the way he is wired, that if he gets the big money, you’re gonna lose him. If he gets the big money, he’s just going to set back.’ And look, his talent, he’s still going to produce, but he’s a guy that’s just going to take the money and check out on you. He said Harper, he has his own warts, but he said ‘Harper’s a guy that is so ultra competitive, inherently competitive, that he’s still going to go out and play hard all the time.’ He said ‘I can’t guarantee that Machado would. In fact, I would almost guarantee you he would not.’ “

That, of course, is just the opinion of one scout. It’s worth pointing out that there is a distinction between taking some plays (or even individual at-bats) off and checking out. But the last superstar to reach free-agency that you heard whispers about teams being concerned about his approach was Josh Hamilton. Hamilton, a former American League MVP with the Texas Rangers, signed a five-year/$125 million deal with the Los Angeles Angels prior to the 2013 season. Hamilton dealt with injuries in a tenure with the Angels that didn’t last five years, but FanGraphs says he contributed just $18 million worth of production during his tenure.

The Angels are one of the richest teams in the sport. But if you want to understand why the haven’t been able to put a playoff-caliber team around Trout, a future Hall of Famer, tying themselves up in bad contracts like the one they issued to Hamilton is one reason why.

Machado, still just 26, is reaching free-agency at the same age that Hamilton made his major league debut at. He’s coming off of the finest offensive season of his career, one in which he slashed .297/.367/.538 with 37 home runs, 107 RBIs and 35.6 offensive WAR. Bringing up Hamilton’s contract isn’t to say that Machado, even if he does check out, will be as ineffective as Hamilton was with the Angels. It is, however, notable that after helping the Dodgers reach the World Series as a rental, the conversation surrounding Machado’s free-agent candidacy seems to come with a negative tone. For years, the baseball world looked ahead to the offseason when Machado, a Hall of Fame talent, would reach free-agency at a ripe young age. Here we are, and the discourse isn’t what we expected it to be.

There’s probably something to the notion that if anyone outside of the Orioles organization knows the most about Machado, it’s the Phillies organization. MacPhail was in charge of baseball operations in Baltimore when the Orioles drafted Machado in the first-round of the 2010 MLB Draft. Klentak and Phillies assistant general manager Ned Rice were also with the Orioles during the early portion of Machado’s career. The Phillies were reportedly willing to part with Adonis Medina, their No. 2 overall pitching prospect, this past summer when they attempted to pry Machado away from the Orioles. You would think they would have a pretty good feel for how Machado would respond to a historic contract, though if Showalter, who has worked with Machado as recently as this past summer, is unsure, perhaps the Phillies are banking on his talent outweighing any negatives that could come with a signing.

When you’re a pre-arbitration eligible or arbitration eligible player, it’s fine to be a talent with some red flags. But if Machado were to come to Philadelphia on a deal in excess of $300 million, it feels like the expectation is that he would be a culture changer, and not just with how he produces on the field. The past month has made it fair to question if he would be miscast in that role.

Klentak, who appeared on SportsRadio 94 WIP with Joe DeCamara and Jon Ritchie last Thursday, did admit, without diving into a ton of specifics, that there will be a lot to weigh when considering issuing a potentially record-setting contract to Machado this offseason.

“There was a bright spotlight on Manny this postseason and the one thing that we can’t lose sight of is this guy is really good and he had some big hits and made some big plays in the postseason too,” Klentak said. “But, I mean, that stuff matters. I talked about this a lot this year and in my post-season press conference—perception does matter. And we want to make sure that we put a team on the field that our fans can relate to and our fans are proud of.”