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Harper, Machado and other stars remain free agents. What's going on?

Andy McCullough, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Baseball

Neither Bryce Harper nor Manny Machado plies his trade as a pitcher or a catcher, so this week's milestone is imprecise but still significant. As battery mates report to Arizona and Florida during the next few days, to be followed by the rest of the rosters next week, the central mystery of this bleak baseball offseason remains unsolved. Neither Harper nor Machado has found a home for the 2019 season, and neither appears particularly close to finding one.

The same can be said for Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel, seven-time All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel, five-time All-Star outfielder Adam Jones, two-time All-Star third baseman Mike Moustakas and dozens of other qualified major league players. Yet, Harper and Machado were supposed to be different, the two-man tandem expected to thaw the spending freeze that has overtaken the sport in the last three years.

"What team out there wouldn't want a Bryce Harper, a Manny Machado or a lot of the free agents out there?" San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey said at the team's recent FanFest in San Francisco.

Harper, 26, was the 2015 National League most valuable player and is a six-time All-Star. Machado, 26, is a four-time All-Star who hit 37 home runs in 2018 and can play shortstop or third base.

The answer to Posey's question, it turns out, is the overwhelming majority of the industry, at least not at the prices the players desire and that precedent suggests they deserve. Harper and Machado aimed to exceed the $325 million deal handed to Giancarlo Stanton by the Miami Marlins in 2014. Neither may reach that mark.

Posey was asked about Harper because the Giants met with Harper in Las Vegas last week. The meeting leaked because Larry Baer, the Giants' chief executive, took a photograph with a fan inside the Bellagio and "it's kind of hard to deny when your CEO gets made in the casino," said Farhan Zaidi, the team's president of baseball operations. And the meeting happened only because Harper was unsigned in February, which presented an opportunity for the bargain-seeking Zaidi and the deep-pocketed Giants.

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San Francisco can afford Harper. The team has spent a relative pittance, about $8.5 million, on major league free agents this offseason. That puts the Giants in line with the overwhelming majority of the industry. Only seven teams have spent more than $50 million on big league free agents: the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Washington Nationals, the New York Yankees, the New York Mets, the Philadelphia Phillies, the Boston Red Sox and the Texas Rangers.

Which begs the question: What is the rest of the sport doing?

Free agency is not the only way to improve a roster. The Cincinnati Reds improved their team through trades, acquiring Yasiel Puig, Alex Wood and Matt Kemp from the Dodgers and swung a deal with the Yankees for All-Star pitcher Sonny Gray. The St. Louis Cardinals netted star first baseman Paul Goldschmidt from the Arizona Diamondbacks. As the Seattle Mariners tore down their roster, the Mets grabbed closer Edwin Diaz and second baseman Robinson Cano, and the Yankees augmented their starting rotation with James Paxton.

All those trades cost teams assets in the form of prospects. To sign a free agent requires only money. In 2013, the Red Sox rose from a last-place finish the year before to a championship after signing seven free agents. That approach feels like a relic from another lifetime, rather than a strategy employed by a World Series winner this decade.

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