Manny Machado and Bryce Harper

Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

MLB Scout: Harper will play hard, Machado will not

Tim Kelly
October 18, 2018 - 9:20 am

Manny Machado and the Los Angeles Dodgers may be just a victory away from reaching the World Series, but the NLCS hasn’t been kind to Machado’s reputation.

Machado responded to criticism of his failure to run out a ground ball in Game 2 of the NLCS by telling Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic that he’s not going to be ‘Johnny Hustle,’ saying that wasn’t his “cup of tea.” In fairness to the 26-year-old, he also did admit that there was “no excuse” for him not sprinting to first base, though that was lost in the world of internet headlines and Machado continually reminding Rosenthal that he was the same player in Baltimore that he is in Los Angeles.

Related: Ray Didinger: 'Machado would get toasted in Philly'

Then in Game 4 of the NLCS, shortly after the interviewed aired, Machado stuck his leg out and swiped Brewers first baseman Jesus Aguilar in the ankle with his left foot after he was thrown out at first base. Brewers star outfielder and National League MVP candidate Christian Yelich called it “a dirty play by a dirty player.” Off the air, he used an expletive to describe Machado. Wednesday, the MLB fined Machado for the incident, which did cause the benches to clear.

This entire saga was followed closely by Philadelphia Phillies fans. For the better part of the last half-decade, there’s been credible speculation that the Phillies will pursue the four-time All-Star shortstop/third baseman this offseason, when he is expected to become a free-agent.

Hall of Fame NFL writer Ray Didinger joined the SportsRadio 94WIP Midday Show with Joe DeCamara and Jon Ritchie on Wednesday. In between discussing the state of the Eagles season, Didinger passed along an interesting nugget on Machado, who will be joined by former National League MVP Bryce Harper in free-agency this offseason.

“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 - 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.’ “

This, of course, is just the opinion of one person. Harper, a six-time All-Star, reached the major leagues at age 19 after the Nationals made him the No. 1 overall pick in 2010 MLB Draft. He flips his hair after home runs, he has a dynamic personality, so you could certainly find someone in the league that wouldn’t have great things to say about him.

At the same time, Didinger isn’t a Hall of Fame writer, even if he’s primarily covered another sport, by accident. This isn’t someone that throws stuff against the wall, giving this story legitimacy. Any time you’re talking about giving a free-agent hundreds of millions of dollars, it isn’t as simple as believing in their talent. There has to be a belief that even once said player is given what will likely be a record contract, their approach won’t slip. If anything, when you are given that type of money, your approach needs to improve, as you are expected to be the best player on a team that regularly reaches the postseason.

Given the week Machado has had, it’s caused some to wonder if prospective suitors - such as the Phillies - will have second thoughts about signing Machado to a deal that will likely exceed $300 million this offseason. Jeff Fletcher of The Orange County Register says he spoke to two anonymous league executives that don’t believe Machado has at all altered the payday he will receive this offseason, saying that this close to free-agency, interested teams already know about any possible flaws a player has. However, to many in Philadelphia, Machado, who spent the first six-and-a-half seasons of his career in Baltimore, has been seen more as a concept than a player. So a less-than-ideal week on the national stage could alter the public discourse on Machado—and not just in Philadelphia.

At the same time, Machado had the finest offensive season of his career in 2018, slashing .297/.367/.538 with 37 home runs, 107 RBIs, a .905 OPS and a 35.6 offensive WAR. His career is on a Hall of Fame trajectory and he’ll be a free-agent at age 26. Even despite his defensive metrics slipping as he moved back to his natural position of shortstop, Machado may be the most desirable free-agent since Alex Rodriguez reached free-agency in the winter of 2000, ahead of his age-26 season.

But the reason this offseason has been circled on the calendar for so long is that Harper will also reach free-agency having just turned 26 this week.

In 2015, Harper slashed .330/.460/.649 with 42 home runs, a 1.109 OPS and a 9.3 fWAR. Hall of Fame right fielders Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente, Tony Gwynn and Frank Robinson never posted a 9.3 fWAR or higher in their careers. Harper did it at age 22.

Like Machado, Harper hasn’t sustained his dominance in a Mike Trout type fashion. After a historically dominant 2015 season, Harper saw his batting average dip to .243 in 2016. In 2017, Harper hit 29 home runs and drove in 87 runs in just 111 games, but likely missed out on winning a second MVP award when he hyperextended his left knee after tripping over a wet first base bag at Nationals Park. That injury, though perhaps not as bad as it could have been, cost him over five weeks.

Unlike Machado, Harper didn’t have his finest season on the cusp of free-agency. Harper, a Las Vegas native, slashed .214/.365/.468 in the first-half of the 2018 season. Harper did still make the All-Star team, as he hit 23 home runs and walked 78 times in the first-half of the season. That type of first-half could only be seen as disappointing by the standards of a Hall of Fame caliber player. But when you are weighing the idea of paying someone over $300 million, you expect Hall of Fame caliber production.

Though the Nationals weren’t able to turn their season around after the All-Star Break, Harper was one of the game’s best players following the Midsummer Classic. In 223 second-half at-bats, Harper slashed .300/.434/.538 with 11 home runs, 46 RBIs, 52 walks and a .972 OPS. That type of production, if put up over the course of a full season, would put him in the MVP discussion.

Again, Machado’s week may have forced some to reconsider whether, in a perfect world, the Phillies would sign him or Harper. It’s still difficult to imagine there being anything more than a lot more tickets sold if either don red pinstripes in 2019.

It is important to keep in mind that if anyone has a good idea of how Machado would respond to a major contract, it’s probably the Phillies. In addition to having pursued him both last offseason and this past summer, Phillies president Andy MacPhail, general manager Matt Klentak and assistant general manager Ned Rice were all in Baltimore when the Orioles drafted Machado. That their continued interest in Machado is one of the worst-kept secrets in the sport may tell you how they feel he would respond after being issued a major contract.