Of the 30 teams in Major League Baseball, only six teams have the combination of money, interest, and competitiveness to go after Bryce Harper or Manny Machado. In order of estimated free-agency money to spend, the field appears to be down to the Dodgers, Yankees, Phillies, Twins, Giants, and Cubs.
And, holy God, do these six teams have money.
The numbers in the table above were created using a crude model of my own devising to analyze how much each team can afford to spend on free agents this offseason. I started with each teams’ existing payroll obligations for 2019, including their existing contracts, estimates for all arbitration eligible players, and then an extra $5 million per team for paying league minimum players.
I then researched the largest opening-day payroll every team has fielded over the last five years, using this number as a proxy for the largest amount each team can afford to spend in 2019. Subtracting the existing payroll from this previous payroll high created an estimate of how much cash each team can afford to spend next season, shown in the table below. The raw data can be seen here.
Signing either Machado or Harper is going to realistically take $30 million annually, with both likely having opt-outs early in their contracts. That means the years prior to the opt-outs will have higher annual values than middle or later years. In other words, any team that wants to sign Harper or Machado needs a minimum $30 million in free cash this season. That eliminates half the league (15 teams), with the Cubs appearing among that group in the table above.
But as I will show, the Cubs have far more money than meets the eye.
One interesting initial cut is Harper’s old team, the Nationals, who have publicly stated that they intend to make a “strong effort” to re-sign him. They just don’t seem to have the cash. My chart shows the Nationals with only $15 million to play with in free agency this offseason, a result of Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer, being due respective raises of $20 million and $15 million raises.
The Washington Post also reports that the Nationals do not want to even come close to the luxury tax of $206 million this offseason. Finally, their competitive window is likely closing. Scherzer is 33 years old, Strasburg has an opt-out after 2019, and Anthony Rendon and Tanner Roark are free agents at season’s end. In view of all this, the Nats cannot be considered serious suiters for Harper (although they will publicly state the opposite for public relations reasons all offseason).
The remaining 15 teams we can cull further. The Braves have $40 million in my table, but multiple reports have them unwilling to spend more than $30 million this offseason. The Marlins…no. Neither the Royals nor the Pirates have any history of huge free agent signings, and I do not expect that to change. Also, I noted the dangers of even successful high-value long-term contracts for small market clubs in a previous post.
The Blue Jays, Tigers, Orioles, and Rangers each have huge sums of money on paper, but are all rebuilding. They should be unwilling to ink a huge deal, particularly one with an early opt-out, while not competitive. Relatedly, I doubt either Machado or Harper wants to go to a rebuilding team. Finally, the Padres have money and have been willing to spend big in the recent past (Eric Hosmer), but they also have too many holes to fill to splurge all their money on a single contract.
One could argue that the Astros could blow past their previous payroll levels in view of repeated deep postseason runs. But they need to re-sign or replace Dallas Keuchel before they can even look at going after Harper (Machado makes no sense to the Astros who have Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman already).
The Cardinals have been sending mixed signals about signing a big bat, first indicating they wanted to avoid big-name signings in order to build from within before promptly reversing themselves. But I cannot see where the money would come from. The Cardinals are only $20 million below their highest payroll, and that is before Adam Wainwright’s delayed contract kicks in. I just do not see Machado or Harper in their future (although Josh Donaldson could be).
As for the Cubs, my initial analysis would seem to place them well out of contention with a $14 million deficit. Yet this number ignores that the Cubs have artificially limited their payroll to the luxury tax the past two seasons, all while seeing their revenues continue to grow (resulting in record profits of $100M). The Cubs are also about to sign a new TV deal that will vastly increase revenues, perhaps by $100 million per season. This past June, I demonstrated that the Cubs could afford to spend $40 million a year for either Harper or Machado. The numbers continue to support that position, showing that the Cubs have $32 million in available cash in 2019, and more than twice than in the seasons to come.
That leaves our six teams.
The Dodgers have a whopping $122 million to spend, although that does assume Clayton Kershaw opts out. In reality, the Dodgers will probably re-sign Kershaw, resulting in about $35-40 million disappearing from that total. But that still leaves $80 million. The Yankees have a shade under $90 million and the Phillies have $63 million. Even the Twins have $55 million to work with. Though a seemingly odd addition to this list, they are only a year removed from a postseason run and have a lot of potential money to spend. I cannot in good conscious ignore them.
This offseason is almost certainly going to break spending records. Not just because the free agent class this offseason is extraordinarily deep and talented, but because the amount of money waiting to be spent is unprecedented. If the Cubs want to outbid the league for Harper or Machado, they are going to need to break out the checkbook.