Let me preface this by saying I think the Yankees made a mistake not signing Manny Machado and/or Bryce Harper. Star-caliber players in their mid-20s are among the most valuable commodities in the sport and they are damn near impossible to acquire. Here were two available for cash, and the Yankees passed despite having a cheap homegrown core and resetting their luxury tax rate last year.
Scott Boras, Harper’s agent, told Ken Davidoff the Yankees were “really never a thought because we knew going in, because of the structure of the game, only certain houses were to be looked at as far as potentials,” whatever that means. In recent days both Brian Cashman and Aaron Boone gave a flat “no” response when asked whether Harper was ever a real possibility for the Yankees. From David Lennon:
“I’m closing the chapter on these questions about high-end free agency in the winter,” Cashman said before Sunday’s game at Steinbrenner Field. “I feel like we’ve vetted that enough. Sorry. I’d rather focus on the here and now, and the real rather than the unreal.”
“We’re obviously up and running with what we’ve got,” Cashman said. “We’re excited about what we got, and how a lot of it looks like now, and hoping that’s enough. But you’re always looking to improve over the course of time, if it’s within certain parameters on both ends. So, obviously between now and Aug. 31, we’ll continue to evaluate all opportunities.”
The Yankees are going to win a lot of games — a lot of games — this season and in future seasons as well. They’re loaded with talent and their best players are all either in their prime or approaching it. I still believe passing on Machado and Harper was a mistake, and not a small one either. There is always room for improvement and both guys would’ve easily fit into the lineup. This past offseason will be relitigated many times in the future. Get ready for it.
Anyway, because this is a full service blog and I try to present #bothsides whenever possible, I figured it was time to explore why the Yankees were smart to pass on Machado and Harper. Some reasons are more believable than others, but hey, they are all potential reasons. Here’s why the Yankees were smart to not sign two 26-year-old superstars and make themselves the clear-cut best team in baseball.
1. Harper’s contact rate is trending down. His contact rate on pitches in the strike zone is trending down, specifically. Hitters all around baseball are making less and less contact because the pitching is so good, but, in Harper’s case, he has swung through a ton of pitches out over the plate over the last year and change. I mean, look:
Harper’s raw power is thunderous. He can hit the ball as far as anyone in baseball. But, over the last year, year and a half, he is missing the pitches he should be clobbering more and more often. Harper’s plate discipline is exceptional. The guy has a 17.4% walk rate the last four years. (Aaron Judge has a 17.2% walk rate the last two years, for comparison.) He gets himself into good hitter’s counts. He just isn’t capitalizing as much as he should be.
To be fair to Harper, the league average contact rate on pitches in the zone has gone from 87.1% in 2015 to 85.6% in 2018. Like I said, pitching is ridiculously good right now. Harper’s in-zone contact rate sat at 78.0% last year. That ranked 137th among the 140 hitters with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title. Hmmm.
2. Machado is sort of a jerk. Machado’s comments about not being “Johnny Hustle” and running out grounders not being “my cup of tea” got a lot of play over the winter and I totally get it. Jogging out routine ground balls doesn’t bother me much though. Yes, it would be nice to see Machado and every other player run out every grounder (especially in the postseason!), but it’s just not going to happen.
The hustle comments overshadowed some dirty at best and intentionally dangerous at worst plays last postseason. Most notably, Machado straight up kicked Jesus Aguilar in the ankle at first base during the NLCS. You’ve seen this by now:
— Fabian Ardaya (@FabianArdaya) October 17, 2018
I don’t know how anyone could watch that and see it as anything other than an intent to injure. Machado didn’t take a misstep and the throw didn’t take Aguilar into Machado’s path. He went out of his way to kick him as he ran through first base. That is dirty as hell. I reckon something like that would’ve earned Machado a fastball to the ribs had it happened during the regular season. We’ll see what happens when the Padres play the Brewers this year.
Everyone has a bad day now and then, but, in Machado’s case, it’s impossible to dismiss this as a bad day given his history. He tried to throw a bat at a pitcher. He got into it with Josh Donaldson. He spiked Dustin Pedroia. I honestly believe the Pedroia thing was an accident. Machado hit the bag hard and his foot popped up, and Pedroia’s calf was in the wrong place at the wrong time. That said, Manny hasn’t earned the benefit of the doubt.
The Yankees go to great lengths to ensure they have a good clubhouse culture — to be fair to Machado, has anyone ever said he’s a bad teammate? (quite the opposite, in fact) — and even if Machado were a model citizen with the Yankees, his reputation is established and it will follow him. He would be asked about it, his teammates would be asked about it, Boone and the coaches would be asked about it. Even on his best behavior, Machado would be a distraction.
3. Harper is falling victim to the shift. Remember how frustrating it was to watch Mark Teixeira and Brian McCann pulled grounder after grounder into the shift all those years? Harper is not quite at that level yet, but he is seeing more and more shifts with each passing year. The numbers:
- 2015: 19.3% plate appearances with the shift
- 2016: 36.5%
- 2017: 38.8%
- 2018: 41.4%
I guess teams finally started to pay attention after Harper’s historically great MVP season in 2015. Over the last three seasons Harper has an 82 wRC+ with the shift. That is: bad. He is seeing the shift more and more often with each passing season and, well, you do the math. Harper had a sub-.250 batting average in two of the last three seasons (.243 in 2016 and .249 in 2018) and the shift is a major reason why. Unless baseball outlaws the shift, which is certainly possible, Harper is only going to see it more often going forward.
4. Machado’s on-base skills aren’t elite. The power and contact ability are certainly elite, few players strike out as little as Machado while hitting for that much power, but the on-base percentage leaves you wanting more. Since breaking out as a bona fide star four years ago, Machado’s posted a .345 OBP in over 2,800 plate appearances, and his career high is a .367 OBP last year. Manny isn’t shy about chasing pitches out of the zone:
The okay but not great plate discipline — Machado is not an extreme hacker, but he isn’t up there looking to walk — is a reason why, despite the contact ability and 142 homers the last four years, Machado’s very best offensive season (141 wRC+ in 2018) is only roughly as good as Giancarlo Stanton’s average season (142 wRC+). Simply put, a player who doesn’t walk much has less margin for the error. If the batting average isn’t there, the offensive value can plummet quick. (That applies to Miguel Andujar, it should be noted.)
5. Both have injury histories. The best predictor of future injury is past injury and both Harper and Machado have an injury history. In Machado’s case, he had surgery on both knees in the span of a few months back in 2013-14. They were non-contact injuries — he hurt his right knee running through first base and his left knee taking a swing — that required a lengthy rehab. To Machado’s credit, he’s played in 637 of 648 possible games the last four years, so the knees have given him no trouble since. Still, two knee surgeries is bad news.
As for Harper, his injury history is more diverse and the injuries have typically been the result of aggressive play. He banged up his knee crashing into the wall in 2013 and played hurt throughout the second half. He tore ligaments in his thumb on an aggressive slide and required surgery in 2014. In 2017 he slipped on a wet base and hyperextended his knee. I remember watching the play live and thinking his knee was destroyed. Somehow he escaped with no fracture or ligament damage. Crazy. Harper has missed 140 games the last five years, roughly a full season’s worth.
Machado’s knees are kinda scary — how much longer does he have at third base (or shortstop) before his legs send him to a less demanding position? — and, in Harper’s case, he played a cautious outfield last year, likely out of self-preservation. There were no dives or crashing into the wall. On one hand, he stayed healthy, and that’s good. On the other, his defensive numbers went in the tank. Point is, we’re talking about very long-term contracts and players with injury histories that can’t be ignored.
6. The Yankees do have a budget. Joel Sherman recently reported Hal Steinbrenner set a $220M or so luxury tax payroll limit for Opening Day. Complain about that number all you want — and believe me, I do (why has payroll not increased at all in nearly ten years? am I really supposed to believe operating costs have climbed to the point where they cancel out all the additional revenue?) — but the fact of the matter is Cashman and his baseball operations folks had to operate around that budget.
Cot’s has the 2019 payroll at $222.4M for luxury tax purposes at the moment. We could play the “don’t sign Brett Gardner, DJ LeMahieu, and Adam Ottavino and they could’ve afforded Harper at his luxury tax number instead!” game until we’re blue in the face, but that leaves the Yankees short an infielder and a reliever. No Gardner, no LeMahieu, and no Zack Britton is enough to afford Machado, but again, it leaves roster holes elsewhere. Dollars and roster spots are not unlimited resources, and the Yankees opted to use their money to upgrade as many roster spots as possible rather than land that one big fish. The 2013 Red Sox won a World Series that way.
Also, this applies long-term as well. The Yankees will have to pay Aaron Judge enormous arbitration raises starting next year. Keeping Aaron Hicks long-term was a priority. Locking up Didi Gregorius and Dellin Betances is presumably next on the agenda. I don’t know how we went from “young players are cheap, allowing teams to surround them with free agents” to “young players are cheap, but they’ll be expensive eventually so you can’t sign anyone,” but we have. Bottom line: Every dollar the Yankees had given Machado or Harper is a dollar they couldn’t give someone else.
7. The Yankees know what they’re doing. Cashman and his staff have earned the benefit of the doubt. The Yankees are healthier as an organization now than they have been in years, probably since the late-1990s. The farm system is immensely productive and slam dunk trade wins like Hicks and Gregorius are the norm. I mean, seriously, when’s the last time the Yankees traded away a player they truly miss? I can’t remember. The baseball operations folks have more information than us and they’re much smarter than us, and they opted to pass on Machado and Harper.
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Like I said earlier, I think the Yankees made a mistake passing on Machado and Harper. Even with the warts, they are insanely productive and only now entering what should be the prime of their careers, which aligns perfectly with the team’s championship window. The Yankees should always and forever be in on players like this. What I think doesn’t matter though. The Yankees have a budget, and squint your eyes and you can find red flags with Harper and Machado. Also, the Yankees are pretty good at this team-building thing, and they deserve the benefit of the doubt. Hopefully passing on these two is not something they come to regret.