Bryce Harper and Manny Machado are two of the most coveted free agents to hit the market in years. Each will likely sign mammoth contracts, and many have asked whether their skills make them worth the money. This column will not ask that question, as it has been covered several times. No, it’s asking a different one, because another question that must also be asked is whether their personalities are worth bringing into a clubhouse.
The Downside of Bryce Harper and Manny Machado
The tempers of both are well-known. Harper can be viewed as a powder keg. There are several videos of him blowing a gasket and getting ejected on YouTube. His mound charge in San Francisco two years ago against Hunter Strickland led to one of the ugliest brawls of the decade. His clubhouse argument with Jonathan Papelbon started because Papelbon did not like Harper’s decision to jog out a popup. He often abuses batting helmets and bats when a call goes against him.
Machado has lost his mind and been ejected on several occasions as well. He has been called a dirty player more than once. His spike to the ankle of Milwaukee first baseman Jesus Aguilar in Game 4 of the NLCS last year drew a $10,000 fine. He did it again to Steve Pearce in Game Four of the World Series, adding to the animosity the Red Sox already felt toward him. Failure to run hard on a ground ball in Game 4 prompted criticism, and more criticism arose after Game 3 of the World Series when he lollygagged up the line in the sixth inning, stretching a double into a single.
Risk vs. Reward
A GM must ask whether the potential rewards Harper or Machado brings to the table are worth the risk of a suspension. But there are more questions. Is it worth the risk of a manager getting ejected while preventing an ejection? Or worse, both the manager and player getting ejected? What about someone charging the mound and starting a bench-clearing brawl? That risks such a player getting suspended, yes, but there’s also the factor of one of the pitchers drilling an opponent in retaliation and potentially being suspended, as Dusty Baker told reporters after the Washington Nationals–San Francisco Giants fight in San Francisco.
Another point to bring up is whether an opposing team would intentionally do something to rile up a player known to have a short fuse in order to create a distraction and cause an ejection. Although no one would admit it, this has certainly happened to both players. What if that were to happen in a crucial division game in September? It would not be far-fetched to think that would happen, especially if the pitcher was someone from the expanded September roster whose suspension would not hurt a team much.
Is it worth it to sign both simultaneously?
Now it gets more interesting. What if a deep-pocketed team signs both? Would that be a wise move?
Bill Simmons has said multiple times that you can have one loose cannon on a team, but never more. Why? Because they feed off each other. We all saw what happened in the NBA when the former Ron Artest and Jermaine O’Neal were both on the Pacers. That is the most extreme example, but there are others. The 1977 Yankees ended up winning the World Series despite their in-fighting, mainly due to Reggie Jackson. There were enough veterans on that team to keep things from destroying their season, despite Jackson’s dugout fight with manager Billy Martin. However, after adding Goose Gossage the following year, animosity toward him from Sparky Lyle made things worse.
They had to replace Martin with Bob Lemon midway through the season just to keep the players from strangling each other. And once Lemon took over, the Yanks went 48-20, stormed back from a 10.5 game deficit to force a tiebreaker, beat the Boston Red Sox in the Bucky Dent tiebreaker game, and defended their title. But, again, they had some cool-headed veterans to hold things together. In today’s Major League, it would be tough to find a team with enough veterans to keep both in check. Not impossible, but tough.
So, is Bryce Harper worth it? Is Manny Machado worth it? If this were a video game, they would both absolutely be worth signing. But MLB is not a video game. There is more to having a successful baseball team than sheer talent.
It will only be worth it to sign either of them if a team that does so has enough veterans to keep them under control. Managers acting as authority figures are not enough. It is more effective when done by a teammate; someone who is a peer. Case in point: Harper’s manager in 2014 and 2015 was Matt Williams. During his playing days, Williams was a veteran clubhouse presence that could keep loose cannons in check, whether he was with the Giants, Cleveland Indians, or Arizona Diamondbacks. But while managing, it was a tougher task. It took veterans such as Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth to do the job.
When Machado was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers, there were veterans in the clubhouse – Rich Hill, Justin Turner, Matt Kemp, and David Freese, among others – who could, as a group, keep him at least somewhat in line. It was certainly worth the risk for the Dodgers to acquire him as they won their second straight NL pennant.
With these factors in mind, the sweepstakes change. Teams that try for them must certainly have the budget to afford the salary. But they also need to have the veterans in order to keep the clubhouse in check. If a team has both, the rewards will outweigh the risks. If not, it could be a disaster.
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