Wishing upon a star in the MLB

Michael Harms, Courier Staff

As we look past the holiday season that was, we are now left yearning for the dead, frozen ground around us to transform into a spring paradise full of life. Meanwhile, executives of Major League Baseball are hoping that the two most premier free agents in its sports history can bring life to the currently mundane offseason. After almost two months of the MLB offseason has passed, only 30 of the 50 top free agents have agreed to contracts with major league teams. Looking at the top of the list which traditionally is full of stars that can make an immediate impact, only three of the top eight free agents have signed.

Leading this list of hopeful high earners are the duo of Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. The league hasn’t had such a premier player enter free agency as young as these two (26 years old), since Alex Rodriguez in 2001. Both young sluggers have mesmerizing talent and polarizing personas; Machado dazzles with spectacular plays at third and has the ability to anchor a lineup. He has also managed to enrage baseball fans in both the AL and NL due to his constant problems with American East foes during his time in Baltimore, and with his dirty plays with the Dodgers this last postseason. Harper has the good looks, a shampoo commercial and the greatest hitting season in his 2015 MVP campaign, since Barry Bonds’ dominant tenure in San Francisco. He has also drawn ire from many fans, opponents not to mention teammates. His ruling passion caused a brawl in the Nationals dugout a couple seasons ago when he and pitcher Jonathan Papelbon let their personal differences spill out in front of the crowd and national TV cameras. On more than one occasion, he has missed games due to injuries that he caused himself due to rage fits after failures on the field.

Whether you like them or not, there is no denying their talent. According to Fangraph’s WAR player evaluation statistic, Harper and Machado have been the 12th and 15th most valuable players in baseball respectively over the last six years. Harper has the aforementioned MVP trophy to go along with six all-star selections. Machado has four All-Star nods, two Gold Glove Awards for his defense and has finished in the top-10 in MVP voting three times.

Bringing in such an immense talent at such a young age has fans drooling over the thought of future October baseball if their teams could find a way to sign one of these stars. It’s not hard to imagine these gentlemen getting your favorite team over the hump by blasting bombs over the fences. It seems that signing these perennial all-stars guarantees you a franchise cornerstone that will carry you to the promised land.

Those front office executives who run your favorite teams, however, do not seem to be as star struck by Harper or Machado. With only a little over a month remaining until teams reconvene for spring training, less than a handful of teams have confirmed their interest in either of these two superstars. Last week, the Yankees officially ruled out on singing Machado, and yesterday the Phillies said they will not sign Machado, but plan on signing Harper. The Nationals are still in contention for Harper, along with the Dodgers when they traded away Matt Kemp, Yasiel Puig and Alex Wood to the Reds last month to clear up cap space. The White Sox seem to be the front runners for Machado, but there is also a mystery team that wants in on Machado. This seems preposterous considering how valuable the players have been in the past and how many prime years the players should have ahead of them, considering their relative youth to other free agents.

Part of the lack of expressed interest could stem from the enormous salaries that the players’ agents are surely asking for from the front offices around the league. It has been rumored that agents of both players are hoping to secure deals for their clients that exceed the largest contract in baseball history; $325 million dollars over 13 years, signed by Giancarlo

Stanton in 2014. While adding over $325 million to the future expenditures sheet would give most team owners second doubts. It’s hard to believe that most sensible front offices can’t see past the debt to the value that the players would bring to any franchise that ultimately signs them.

Having high-caliber players helps teams win more games. Teams who win more games make the playoffs. Playoffs mean extra revenue for the team; a minimum of roughly three and more likely around $5 million per home playoff game. As I mentioned before, six of the top eight free agents of this offseason remain unsigned. Last year in 2018, teams who added one of the top eight free agents that were not on their team the year before won an average of 6.8 more games than in 2017. While signing one guy is not going to ensure that your baseball team is playoff caliber, having one of the top 15 players in the world will surely help. Even if Harper or Machado only helped your team play in three home playoff games over the next decade that you wouldn’t have otherwise played in, that could be $15 million of revenue for the team beyond the value of their production on the field. When you also factor in the marketing advantages of both players and the sure uptick in jersey sales that will come with signing them, I think front office executives that are reluctant to offer a record breaking commitment are not properly judging the value of these superstars.

One entity that does not forsake the value of superstars is the league office of MLB. MLB has witnessed the star-driven leagues of the NFL and NBA enjoy a boost in popularity over the last decade, which has been accompanied by revenue explosions in both leagues. Meanwhile, popularity of baseball has continued to dwindle since 2014, especially among young people. While there are many reasons for this, one reason MLB has put forward is that in the age of the Internet and social media, people can follow and consume content pertaining to their favorite stars. Since MLB is not a star-driven sport, baseball has a tough time giving the casual observer something to follow or a reason to be interested. I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment.

During the 2018 MLB All-Star Broadcast, MLB commissioner, Rob Manfred, became critical of the league’s most talented player Mike Trout. Manfred’s words suggested that he thought the popularity of Trout and subsequently, MLB was being inhibited because Trout was not willing to be more active in marketing himself and the game of baseball. “Player marketing requires one thing for sure – the player… you need people to engage with those to whom you are trying to market in order to have effective marketing.” When asked about how Trout chooses to market himself, Manfred responded, “That’s up to him. If he wants to engage and be more active in that area, I think we could help him make his brand really, really big.” There’s no doubt that when Manfred says “his brand” he is referring to baseball’s brand as it is specifically Mr. Manfred’s duty to worry about the future of baseball, and not that of Trout.

Circling back to Harper and Machado, it is obvious that there is a huge disconnect between how the league wants its stars to be seen and marketed and how baseball front offices try to assemble baseball teams. Based on Manfred’s critical comments of Trout, his ideal world for this baseball offseason would consist of over a dozen of teams locked in a bidding war for the two available stars’ services. The league would then create massive hoopla surrounding the free agency process, with media outlets documenting the speculative process the two stars are going through to select their future homes. Yet after two months, only four of the league’s 30 teams have announced the slightest bit of interest in employing a franchise altering player.

As a fan of baseball, I wish that Harper or Machado’s trip through free agency was as much of a spectacle as what we have witnessed in other sports. Think about the excitement and anticipation brought on by Deandre Jordan Mavericks/ Clippers free agency saga, Lebron James’ decision, or the 48 hours of endless action that is the beginning of NFL free agency. Even college football has signing day TV coverage where pimple faced 18-year-olds hover their hand over a grouping of hats before selecting one that will be their future alma mater.

I know baseball is different, and that its uniqueness, pace, and traditions are what make it so special to me and millions of other fans. Yet I can’t help but wonder if the lack of excitement from the media, fans, and even worse; the majority of MLB teams, over two of the highest profile free agents in baseball history, is a signal that baseball is no longer and will never again be America’s favorite pastime.

When news of Harper and Machado’s possibly record-breaking contracts finally does break, there will be those who express either excitement or contempt. Some fans of the new employer(s) will dream about the records the players might break and the hardware the player and team might acquire in the coming years. Analytical fans who think along the lines of the front office executives might question if the players will live up to the mega contract and if those teams would have been better off spending their money on different players or to save up for contract extensions they could offer to the young talent currently on their roster.

As someone who has never been fond of Harper or Machado, or any of the four teams listed above, I hope that any team who signs one of these two, not only finds a star, but that these stars transform into supernovas for the team who has the courage to sign them. I hope the hot shot, half a billion dollar bad boys give the league, the media and most importantly the fans (both current and hopefully future) something that baseball desperately needs; which is something that captures their attention. Harper and Machado’s play after signing this contract has the potential to dramatically shift how those inside the game view the importance of stars in the MLB. If Harper and Machado continue to rack up awards, playoff appearances and commercial appearances, they can prove that stars in baseball can mean just as much to their teams and to America as stars in other major sports. It is only fitting that baseball will continue to be revered by children several generations from now. I find myself once again on my knees in front of my bedroom window wishing upon a star (or two).