The Phillies eventually got their man in Bryce Harper, even if it took all damn winter, but they were always favored to get someone, given that principal owner John Middleton perhaps unwisely admitted the team’s willingness to spend “stupid” money. What was in dispute was whether their primary target would be Harper or Manny Machado. Now a little more light is being shed on that debate, and it’s emerging that the decision was far from entirely a baseball decision.
This Athletic rundown of the Phillies’ offseason makes clear that most of Philadelphia’s baseball minds considered Machado “the better all-around player” of the two, and likely to age better than Harper. Given what we now know about what Harper and his agent were after—length, and money that would top Giancarlo Stanton’s deal—Machado would also required a shorter-term commitment. But, according to the Athletic’s report, “the Phillies feared a negative public reaction to a Machado deal.”
What does that mean? Middleton explains, in this ESPN piece:
“The one thing that Bryce had over Manny, clearly, is the Philadelphia fans loved him,” Middleton said. “That was abundantly clear throughout the offseason. Part of the reason we walked away from Manny at the end there, was that reason. We just felt that taking Manny when Bryce was still available just wasn’t going to play well with the fan base. And so we passed.”
Middleton then cited a Philadelphia Inquirer poll on social media, in which 87 percent of 9,000 voters preferred Harper.
“That just tells you something,” he said.
The Phillies signing Bryce Harper to a 13-year deal because of a Twitter poll is not quite like the Brown drafting Johnny Manziel because a homeless person told Jimmy Haslam to—for one, there were no bad options for Philly here, as both Machado and Harper are amazing players. It’s also a concession to the realities of the baseball business: owners spend money because they expect to make money. One means to that end is building a winning team with the best players. Another means, cutting out the middle man, is to have the players who’ll sell jerseys and tickets. And as The Athletic’s report noted, those same baseball people who believed Machado was the better player also believed that “Harper was more marketable. That mattered.”
Harper probably is more marketable in Philadelphia, and in most markets. The question becomes why. One obvious answer is the blowback over the perception that Machado doesn’t hustle—a certain type of fan claims to care very much about that sort of thing. But Harper was dogged by allegations of not hustling for years in Washington. And last I checked, Machado was never benched for not hustling, like Harper was, smeared by ex-teammates for a lack of discipline, like Harper was, or, uh, physically strangled by a teammate for not running out a pop fly, like Harper was.
Please don’t misunderstand, the point of this is not to criticize Harper. The kerfuffle over hustle is overblown and often in bad faith. (Machado’s comments, which brought him so much grief, were actually pointing out the difference in running hard when it actually matters vs. running hard solely to gain a reputation as a hard runner. He was absolutely correct.) The point of this is to wonder aloud why a reputation—quite possible costing him big money—gets attached by fans to a player like Machado and not to a player like Harper. There’s an obvious answer to that one, too.