When you have no choice but to play for a team that went 62-100 last year.
Photo: Ezra Shaw (Getty)

MLB’s slow trudge towards the signing of top free agents Manny Machado and Bryce Harper may at last possibly be nearing a conclusion. It also may not be! But at the very least the speculation concerning those two stars’ final destinations seems to have narrowed dramatically. Unless any of the ubiquitous and possibly nonexistent “mystery teams” turn out to be real suitors, there appear to be two options for each marquee player: Machado will go to either the White Sox or the Phillies, and Harper will go to either the Phillies or the Nationals. Every other Major League team has somehow decided that they don’t need to add a superstar (or two).

According to a new report on Tuesday from The Athletic’s Phillies beat writer, Matt Gelb, one of those possible combinations—the one in which both Machado and Harper go to Philadelphia—isn’t going to happen. From the report:

It behooves the team to keep both Harper and Machado engaged because the most valuable leverage the Phillies have is the threat of choosing one over the other.

The Phillies are believed to prefer Machado over Harper because he is an elite hitter and defender, but conflicting information has spread from team to team and agent to agent. That, of course, is by design. The Phillies do not benefit from broadcasting their preference. League sources insisted the Phillies have made this much clear during negotiations: They will not sign both players.

This is extremely disconcerting if true. Let’s indulge a brief hypothetical to demonstrate both how bad it is and why it is bad. For the purposes of this hypothetical let’s go ahead and believe USA Today’s Bob Nightengale’s report from Sunday that the Phillies are the “clear-cut favorite” to sign Harper and the Nationals are a “long shot.” From there, we can make a slight leap and assume Harper is going to Philadelphia. If the Phillies aren’t going to spend on both Machado and Harper, as Gelb reports, a signing of Harper would leave one of the best young infielders in the game, coming off his best offensive season yet...with nowhere to go except the Chicago White Sox. (Obviously, the impact is basically just as disastrous for Harper if the Phillies unexpectedly get Machado and he has to go back to the Nationals, but I get to pick the hypotheticals around here.)

MLB’s free agency has been self-evidently fucked for a while, but in the Machado/Harper negotiations earlier this winter, there was a sense that at least a few teams were still competing against each other for the top players available. Now, MLB is just one contract away from a situation in which 29 teams simply refuse to take advantage of a depressed market and sign a player who would immediately become the face of their franchise and dramatically improve that team’s chances of success. That may not be collusion—it’s complicated—but it sure would feel like it. Manny Machado may well be more-or-less forced onto a team that finished fourth in the AL Central last season, and damn does it feel wrong that no other franchise would want to stop it.