Bryce Harper, Manny Machado will get paid, but are they baseball’s best?

ESPN MLB reporter Jeff Passan says that he expects Manny Machado and Bryce Harper’s free agency to linger into February. (2:15)

The largest total-value contract in MLB is Giancarlo Stanton‘s 13-year, $325 million extension that he signed with the Miami Marlins in 2015, now carried by the New York Yankees.

You know Scott Boras would love to break that record. He’s the agent for Bryce Harper, who, as you also know, is a free agent who hasn’t signed yet. Manny Machado hasn’t signed yet, either. Maybe Machado and Harper will break Stanton’s record — or maybe both players will sign a shorter-team deal for a higher-average annual salary. That record belongs to Zack Greinke, who will average $34.41 million per season on his contract with the Diamondbacks that runs through 2021.

Manny Machado has been offered an eight-year contract by the White Sox while remaining engaged with the Phillies, sources say.

With the big-name free agents still on the market, we ask whether it’s better for teams to have a balanced payroll than to splurge on a star.

The dominoes are falling in the second-base market, with DJ LeMahieu winding up in pinstripes. But New York still could find room for Manny Machado.

You’ll note that Stanton wasn’t the best player in the game in 2018. Greinke wasn’t the best pitcher. The highest-paid players are often not the best players in the game. In fact, look at the 10 highest-paid players in 2018:

Clayton Kershaw, $35.5 million

Mike Trout, $34.1 million

Greinke, $34.0 million

Jake Arrieta, $30.0 million

David Price, $30.0 million

Miguel Cabrera, $30.0 million

Yoenis Cespedes, $29.0 million

Jason Heyward $28.2 million

Justin Verlander, $28.0 million

Jon Lester, $27.5 million

Trout was the only one who finished in the top 10 in the majors in WAR. Verlander had an excellent season. Price won a World Series. Kershaw wasn’t quite vintage Kershaw, but he was pretty good, although he didn’t come up big in the World Series.

Anyway: Buyer beware, even for two young stars who are just 26 years old and in the prime of their careers. Still, this got me to thinking: Harper and Machado are about to become the highest-paid players, or among the very highest-paid players, in the game. If you were drawing up a list of the best players, however, where would they rank?

I don’t think either ranks in the top five — and that’s just among position players.

He didn’t win the MVP Award but is still No. 1 based on his long track record of dominance. He has averaged 9.1 WAR per season in his career and has three seasons of 10-plus WAR. The other seven players to do that: Babe Ruth (9), Rogers Hornsby (6), Willie Mays (6), Ty Cobb (3), Ted Williams (3), Mickey Mantle (3) and Barry Bonds (3). That’s the inner circle of the inner circle.

If Trout averaged 8 WAR per season over the next eight seasons — which would take him through his age-34 season — he’d be approaching 130 career WAR and already in the all-time top 10 among position players. What could stop him? Injuries, of course, and he did miss time in both 2017 (48 games) and 2018 (22), the only blemish on his otherwise formidable record. Mantle and Ken Griffey Jr. are two prime examples of players who were the best in the game in their 20s but nowhere near as good after turning 30. It can happen.

That being said, Trout is better than Machado or Harper, and nobody would argue otherwise — except maybe Scott Boras.

Betts led the American League in batting average, slugging percentage and runs scored, won a Gold Glove and topped Trout to lead the majors with 10.9 WAR. He easily and deservedly won MVP honors. Of course, he was nowhere near that good in 2017, when he hit a more pedestrian .264, but he was also second in the MVP voting in 2016. In other words, he was already a great player who raised his game to its highest level.

Harper plays the same position, and over the past four seasons has a strong case as the better hitter:

Betts: 592 G, .304/.370/.524, 105 HR, 134 OPS+

Harper: 570 G, .283/.410/.543, 129 HR, 150 OPS+

Harper gets on base more and has more home runs, and his adjusted OPS is higher. On the other hand, Harper’s monster 2015 now lingers well in the past. Maybe he can do that again. Maybe Betts will never match his 2018 season. You can argue it either way. Betts has been better recently and has been better over the past three seasons. Even if you want to take Harper going forward with the bat, we also have to consider defense. That’s where Betts — one of the best defenders in the game at any position — shines:

Betts since 2015: plus-93 Defensive Runs Saved

Harper since 2015: minus-16 Defensive Runs Saved

Now, Harper’s negative rating comes courtesy of an awful 2018, when he was credited with minus-26 DRS. Mark Simon of Sports Info Solutions explained Harper’s terrible numbers in late September, pointing out that Harper’s range in right field and center field were poor, his arm produced negative value and he had a lot of misplays. Simon wrote:

Two seasons ago, 35 percent of baserunners advanced an extra base on hits to right field that were handled by Harper. That number increased to 45 percent in 2017 and 54 percent this season (MLB average is 50 percent). In center field, 21-of-31 (68 percent) advanced on Harper, 13 percentage points higher than MLB average.

Lastly, Harper’s Good Fielding Play and Defensive Misplay numbers are way out of line with his historical norms. Harper has six Good Fielding Plays (GFPs) and 31 Defensive Misplays & Errors (DM&E). There is precedent for Harper having such a high misplay total, but the six GFPs pale in comparison to just two seasons ago, when he had 24 in a comparable number of innings (he had 12 last season).

Harper’s ledger includes six of what SIS calls “wasted throws” that allowed a runner to advance a base, four instances of mishandling a ball after a hit, again allowing runners to advance, and three bad routes, in which he took a poor path to the ball, allowing a ball to drop for a hit.

Some have excused Harper’s poor defense by suggesting he was protecting himself — not running into walls, not diving for balls and so on — with the apparent assumption that he’ll try harder after receiving his big contract. Simon’s analysis suggests there were many problems with Harper’s defense in 2018 beyond the possibility of not just diving for balls. He probably won’t be so bad again in 2019, but it’s a red flag.

Finally, we have total WAR over the past four seasons:

Betts: 32.9

Harper: 17.5

Even adjusting upward for Harper’s defense, I don’t see how you can rate him higher than Betts.

As far as Machado versus Betts, Betts’ career OPS+ is 134 and Machado’s is 121 (and Machado just had his best season). Machado’s career-high OBP is .367, which he just accomplished. Betts has a career mark of .370 and is coming off a .438 OBP. Again, WAR over the past four seasons:

Betts: 32.9

Machado: 23.2

No contest.

The past two seasons:

Lindor: .275/.345/.512, 71 HR, 40 SB, 124 OPS+, 19 DRS, 13.4 WAR

Machado: .278/.339/.505, 70 HR, 23 SB, 127 OPS+, -4 DRS, 9.2 WAR

I’ll take Lindor. He’s just as good at the plate, and we know he plays shortstop at an elite level. Both have been extremely durable. Maybe Machado is a good shortstop; his metrics there with the Orioles in 2018 were poor (minus-18 DRS) but were excellent with the Dodgers (plus-8). We just don’t know enough yet about his ability there. If you play Machado at third (we know he’s good there), a shortstop trumps a third baseman.

You can quibble with Lindor’s ranking third overall since he hasn’t proven to be an elite OBP guy — but neither is Machado. I’ll take a shortstop who hits 38 home runs, plays terrific defense, shows up every day and plays with as much joy as anyone in the game.

This was the debate that actually kicked off this exercise. I said I’d take Ramirez over Machado; my two editors disagreed. We fought. We argued. Nobody backed down. Even though Ramirez has finished third in the MVP voting the past two seasons, I think there’s still some skepticism behind his numbers, in part because he was never a top prospect and also because he doesn’t look the part. He’s short and squatty, while Machado and Harper have superstar physiques. As Lindor told me last summer when I asked him where Ramirez gets his power from: “His belly.”

But, man, can Ramirez play. Even with his late-season slump, he finished at .270/.387/.552 with 39 home runs and more walks (106) than strikeouts (80). He plays a good third base and can slide over to second if necessary (and could probably play shortstop on some teams). He has played 152, 152 and 157 games the past three seasons and is actually a couple of months younger than Machado.

Some might suggest Ramirez has beat up on some crappy AL Central pitching the past two seasons. There is some truth to that:

Versus AL Central: .313/.408/.624

Versus everyone else: .279/.357/.522

Now let’s compare that to Machado:

Versus White Sox, Tigers, Royals, Twins: .355/.417/.585

Versus everyone else: .265/.326/.491

We should also take a timeout to point out that Machado has received a huge benefit from Camden Yards in his career. Going back to 2015, his breakout power season, he has hit .304 with 78 home runs at Camden Yards (a home run every 14.2 at-bats). He has hit .269 with 64 home runs (a home run every 22.3 at-bats) everywhere else. Over 630 at-bats, that’s 44 home runs at Camden Yards and 28 everywhere else.

I’ll go with Ramirez. And until Harper comes close to his 2015 season again, I’ll also take Ramirez over Harper.

There are two potential reasons to not rank Arenado above Machado and Harper:

He’s entering his age-28 season, so he’s two seasonal ages older than both Harper and Machado.

Coors Field.

The first item is an important consideration, but the actual age difference between Arenado and our two free agents isn’t actually two years — he’s 15 months older than Machado and 18 months older than Harper.

Plus, if we’re considering long-term production here, there’s good reason to think Arenado might age better. Other than a broken finger he suffered in 2014, he has been extremely durable, averaging 158 games the past four seasons. Machado has also been durable, averaging 159 games the past four seasons, but remember that he had surgeries on both knees earlier in his career.

Harper’s injury history is decidedly mixed. He missed a bunch of time in 2013 and 2014 and then got a bone bruise in 2017 when he slipped running over first base. Maybe that can be considered a freak injury, but his struggles in 2016 might have been related to a sore shoulder, raising the question of how he performs when he isn’t 100 percent. Maybe that explains the up-and-down nature to his career.

As for Coors Field, the wRC+ stat (weighted runs created) adjusts for park factors, and over the past three seasons, Arenado is at 129, Harper at 132 and Machado at 125 (Harper jumps up to 149 if you include 2015).

I guess that’s my knock against Machado: He’s not a superstar hitter, not in the same sense as Joey Votto and his .400 OBP, or J.D. Martinez or even Harper at his best. Machado simply doesn’t get on base enough, hits too many infield pop-ups to hit .300 and is one season removed from a .310 OBP. It’s hard to stare at that number and think he’s a top-five player. Of course, Arenado plays in Coors Field and doesn’t post .400 OBPs, either. Here are the rankings for each player in wRC+:

The season-by-season rankings in WRC+ for Manny Machado, Bryce Harper and Nolan Arenado since 2015:

Harper has the highest ceiling. Arenado has the highest floor due to his consistency. Arenado and Machado obviously have the big defensive edge over Harper. I also wonder if Arenado would benefit from leaving Coors Field, at least in how the analytics evaluate him. We all know about the Coors Field effect — playing there hurts you on the road because you don’t see good breaking balls in the thin air — so it’s possible Arenado produces the same overall numbers if he played somewhere else, but his wRC+ would be much higher because he wouldn’t suffer the Coors Field-effect penalty.

Here’s the four-year WAR picture from

WAR totals for Bryce Harper, Manny Machado and Nolan Arenado in each season since 2015, according to data:

And here’s FanGraphs’ WAR, which gives a much closer evaluation among the three (basically, not docking Harper as much for bad defense and not crediting Arenado as much for great defense):

The WAR ratings for Bryce Harper, Manny Machado and Nolan Arenado since 2015, according to FanGraphs data:

If you want to consider Machado and Arenado essentially even, we can go to the tiebreaker, which we’ll call intangibles. Big edge to Arenado. And Arenado’s consistency vaults him past Harper.

So that’s my top five: Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez and Nolan Arenado. I’m comfortable slotting Machado in at sixth and maybe Harper seventh — although not that comfortable, because we have so many good young players in the game right now. Consider our other options:

Christian Yelich: He was obviously better than Machado, Harper and even Arenado in 2018 after hitting .326/.402/.598 and winning NL MVP honors, with valuing him at 7.6 WAR. It’s possible he has reached a new level of play; it’s more likely that will be his peak season. He’s primarily a corner outfielder with the Brewers but played a lot of center in Miami (although his metrics were below average there). Hey, if he does it again, he’s top-five material.

Jose Altuve: He had a tremendous peak in 2016-17, averaging 8.0 WAR, winning two batting titles, stealing 62 bases and winning an MVP Award. His power fell off in 2018 — he did play through a knee injury in the second half — although he was still worth 5.2 WAR in 137 games. He has a strong case as a top-five player if you buy into a bounce-back season. He’ll also turn 29 in May, and his defense at second is merely average.

Kris Bryant/Corey Seager: The Steamer projections at FanGraphs actually project these two as top-five players for 2019:

Trout: 9.3

Betts: 7.3

Lindor: 6.6

Ramirez: 5.8

Bryant: 5.8

Seager: 5.8

Seager was worth 5.9 WAR in 2016 and 5.7 in 2017, so 5.8 is certainly reasonable. We do have to see how he bounces back from Tommy John surgery, primarily to see if the arm strength at shortstop is still there. If he can learn to pull the ball more, he’ll make better use of his natural raw power and become 30-homer guy. Like Seager, Bryant is coming off an injury-marred season, a shoulder injury that zapped his power and bat speed. That’s enough to keep him out of my top five (plus a poor history of hitting with runners in scoring position and clutch situations late in games).

Alex Bregman: Like Yelich, this is mostly a “do it again” scenario. He hit .286/.394/.532, including 31 home runs, in producing a 6.9-WAR breakout season. He wasn’t just a product of Minute Maid Park’s Crawford Boxes, either: He hit 16 home runs at home, 15 on the road, and lashed out 51 doubles while walking more than he struck out. Looks a lot like a Jose Ramirez starter package, minus the belly and switch-hitting.

Aaron Judge: He gets dinged only because of the injury. His 162 wRC+ over the past two seasons trails only Trout and J.D. Martinez. Sure, he fans a ton, but he also walks a lot (only Trout and Votto have a higher walk rate the past two seasons), and he’s a good defensive right fielder. Would you take him over Harper? I might.

(Note: Steamer projects Judge to hit just .251/.368/.500 even though his two-year record is .282/.409/.584. I’ll take the over on his 4.7 WAR projection.)

Carlos Correa: He has missed significant time in two straight seasons and struggled in 2018 when he did play (.239/.323/.405). He has top-five potential and is just 24 but will need to re-establish himself as an elite player in 2019.

That’s 14 players – and I didn’t even include Ronald Acuña Jr., who was so good in the second half as a rookie (.322/.403/.625), that it wouldn’t be shocking if he emerges as the best player in the National League as soon as right now. If this were a “pick a team from scratch scenario where you get to keep a player forever,” he has a case as No. 1.

It doesn’t include Matt Chapman. I love Matt Chapman. I would consider taking Chapman over Arenado or Machado at third base. He’s that good on defense. His wRC+ in 2018 was 137, better than Arenado’s 132 and just behind Machado’s 141. If you want to argue that Chapman is a top-10 player – in other words, if you’re buying the offensive production – I won’t put up much of a fight.

We haven’t even mentioned Javier Baez or Trevor Story or Trea Turner or Cody Bellinger or Xander Bogaerts or Gleyber Torres, all of whom are 26 or younger. Maybe that’s the takeaway here: The game is overfowing with so much amazing young talent right now we really are in a new golden era. So go rank your own top 10. Good luck.