Manny Machado-Bryce Harper free agency saga just beginning

If the baseball season was, let’s say, a Triple Crown horse race, then Manny Machado’s trade to the Dodgers would have prompted announcer Dave Johnson to go to his legendary call:

“And down the stretch they come!”

Plenty still will happen between now and early November, when Machado and Bryce Harper finally hit free agency after what feels like decades of anticipation. Barring a crazy scenario in which the Nationals trade Harper by July 31, however, the basic parameters — the track surface, if you will — won’t change anymore.

Which leaves us with plenty of questions, still, with the last two men standing from what was once regarded as an all-time spectacular free-agent class. Or really, one-and-a-half men, since Harper’s subpar first half has called his future earnings into question.

Here’s what we’ve learned and what remains as known unknowns:

1. The transfer of Machado from the Orioles to the City of Angels is arguably the most compelling event that could have occurred vis-à-vis Machado’s impending free agency. If the Yankees or Phillies had acquired him, then you could see the Machado rental as a clear courting period for both sides to get to know one another and decide whether they wanted to extend the relationship long-term. Whereas if the Brewers had won the trade sweepstakes, then we’d know Machado would definitely get in and out of Wisconsin before he’d so much as perfected an imitation of manager Craig Counsell’s funky batting stance.

With the Dodgers, though, it’s more complex. In theory, the Dodgers will welcome Machado as a superb injury replacement for homegrown Corey Seager and come season’s end, wish him good luck elsewhere as Seager returns from Tommy John surgery in 2019. Yet the Dodgers obviously can afford the sort of record-breaking contract that Machado seeks. What happens if Machado leads the Dodgers to their first championship since 1988? Could the team and player grow smitten with one another?

2. Last winter, when it appeared that both the Yankees and Dodgers would get their payrolls under the $197 million luxury-tax threshold for 2018, the conventional wisdom called for both clubs, having reset their tax rates, to dive back into the deeper end of the pool next year, thereby putting both of them in play for Machado and Harper.

However, what if this dual-coast experiment in austerity can be likened to the scene in “Arrested Development” when G.O.B.’s seal eats a cat, thereby acquiring a taste for mammal blood, and proceeds to bite off Buster’s hand? Might the Yankees and Dodgers, having grown comfortable with lower bills and strong results, opt to stay around the $200 million number rather than climb back to their prior peaks?

Yankees managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner has repeatedly expressed his desire to keep the team’s payroll under $200 million. And the Dodgers take pride in the fact that they haven’t given out a nine-figure contract since Andrew Friedman became president of baseball operations in the fall of 2014 (though they offered one to Zack Greinke before he jumped to the Diamondbacks in December 2015).

Neither team has much money coming off its books, so an interest keeping payrolls flat-ish would make it quite difficult to sign Machado or Harper. October disappointment, on the other hand, might push the powers to spend more.

3. So far, it appears that the Yankees made the correct decision when they essentially chose Giancarlo Stanton over Harper. As the Yankees reminded us with Stanton, you never rule them out of any big-game hunt, yet Harper looks like quite the long shot to wind up in pinstripes, what with the Yankees’ crowded outfield.

As for Machado’s Yankees prospects, it could depend on how badly he wants to play shortstop. Given Machado’s poor metrics at shortstop with the Orioles this season, it wouldn’t make sense for the Yankees to shift Didi Gregorius elsewhere. And given what a strong fit Gregorius has been with the Yankees, it makes sense for them to pursue an extension with the 28-year-old, who can be a free agent after next season.

4. The team most likely to sign either Machado or Harper this winter, more than ever, has to be the Phillies. They fell short to the Dodgers in their aggressive efforts to acquire Machado, who was selected by current Philadelphia president Andy MacPhail in the 2010 amateur draft when MacPhail worked as the Orioles’ president of operations. The Phillies appear in the phase you want when you sign a big-bucks free agent — Machado or Harper would represent a finishing touch rather than a building block. And by all accounts, Phillies principal owner John Middleton is more than willing to commit to the sort of dollars that will get these young studs’ attention.

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