Of the assumptions one can make about the way the rest of the 2018 season will unfold, one of the most common ones is this: Baltimore's Manny Machado will be traded.
Already right next to Bryce Harper as 1A and 1B on the list of most desirable targets in next winter's stunningly talented free agent class, Machado is now also the biggest fish in the trade pond as well. The Orioles, wanting to make one last push into the postseason with their current core, resisted trading him this past offseason.
That turned out to be a miscalculation. After an Opening Day win, the O's dropped five straight games. There was some hope after they took three of four from the New York Yankees in the Bronx but after that, the bottom fell out. They lost 13 of their next 15 games and finished March and April combined with an 8-20 record that immediately dropped them out of playoff contention.
Machado has never been guarded about his intention to leave Baltimore after the season, and now the Orioles are in a familiar bind. If they want anything to come of their biggest star other than gaining a draft pick, they must trade him before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.
One team most connected to Machado in recent trade rumors has been the Philadelphia Phillies. The Phils seem like a good fit for the star infielder, and Jon Heyman of FRS Network named them a favorite to land Machado at some point on Friday. But should they pull the trigger and make a move now? Or should they bide their time?
A good fit
Machado would be an outstanding fit in Philadelphia. He is adept at shortstop and third base—both positions the Phillies will have to consider making upgrades to as they complete their drive to return to serious contention. Maikel Franco has not built upon the promising rookie season he had three years ago, although this year he is showing signs he can be a steady if not spectacular presence at third base, marked by the occasional hot streak.
Shortstop, on the other hand, could be where things get interesting. Top prospect JP Crawford has been expected to be the true heir to Jimmy Rollins for years now, but he took a big step back in prospect rankings after a rough start last year, and so far he has failed to make the job his own. He currently owns a .191/.247/.324 slash line, and his vaunted plate discipline—one of the main reasons the Phillies have been so high on him for so many years—seems to have deserted him. He's struck out 21 times to only four walks in 23 games this season. In last year's cup of coffee as a September call-up, he had 22 strikeouts in the same number of games but walked 16 times.
Machado moved from third base to shortstop this year, and at the beginning of Spring Training, it was reported that the ability to play shortstop, his natural position until he was called up to the big leagues when he was blocked by a still-productive JJ Hardy, would factor into his free agency decision. Of the major contenders for his services—both as an in-season trade and as a free agent—the Phillies seem to have the most natural ability to slot him directly in at short. In a hitter-friendly ballpark like Citizens Bank Park, he would be a deadly offensive force and a top-notch defender.
The Phillies also have the prospect ammo to swing such a deal. They have a bumper crop of good outfield prospects, including Adam Haseley and Mickey Moniak. The Orioles are said to be looking for infielders and pitching, and the Phils could supply that as well. They could sweeten the deal by throwing in Cesar Hernandez, clearing the way for Scott Kingery to take over at second full-time, or use Kingery, whose team-friendly contract situation will be a boon to anyone if he comes good, in the deal if they went with the more established Hernandez long-term at second base. Franco could be thrown in too, giving Kingery the playing time at third. As for pitchers, the Phillies have some good ones, although not as many are as MLB-ready as the Orioles might like them.
The pieces are certainly there after so many years of rebuilding and restocking the farm system. The question is whether the Phils will pull the trigger early, or...
Patience is a virtue
...if they wait until the winter.
This, frankly, is probably the more prudent way to go about things. The Phillies didn't really expect to contend in 2018. Their main aim was to show substantial improvement from years past to convince one of the big names in free agency that adding them will push them over the edge and into the land of the contenders again. Their improbable start the first two months of the season indicate just that kind of progress. Signing with the Phillies will not be a dead end for a guy like Machado.
With the future still more important than the present, it makes more sense for the Phillies to sit and wait on Machado. Unless they were to have assurances he would sign an extension with them post-trade—and there are no indications he will do anything that will prevent him from hitting the open market in the winter—it's far more prudent to wait and sign him for nothing but a draft pick than to trade several high-quality prospects to rent him for the summer with no guarantee he'll be back after the bidding war he's sure to incite.
And make no mistake: the Phillies can win that war.
The Phillies are MLB's sleeping financial giants. They only have four non-arbitration salary commitments on the books next season: Kingery, Odubel Herrera, Jake Arrieta, and Carlos Santana—and Kingery and Herrera will only make $6.25m between them next year. The Philadelphia media market is the fourth-biggest in baseball and has shown that when the Phils succeed, they will turn out in droves. From 2009 to 2012 they sold out 257 consecutive home games, the longest streak in National League history and the third-longest in the history of baseball. They could comfortably support one of the biggest payrolls in the league during the tail end of their five-year run of NL East titles—and that was before they signed their lucrative cable TV rights deal with Comcast, a deal that, since it was signed when the rebuild began in earnest after the 2013 season, has largely gone under the radar but was worth $5b over 25 years.
If the Phillies fix their sights on Machado—and according to Heyman he looks to be at the top of their list of targets this winter—they can afford to blow any offer out of the water and still have money to spare to improve other parts of the team.
Why, then, expend precious prospects without an ironclad guarantee that Machado will play more than two months with a team that, while emerging from the cocoon of its rebuild, is not yet complete? It's far more sensible to bide their time and strike when they can tie him up long-term.