Bryce Harper or Manny Machado: Which free agent is better fit for Cubs?
Bryce Harper or Manny Machado: Which free agent is better fit for Cubs?
This winter's free agent class is headlined by Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. One of these stars is a far better fit for the Chicago Cubs.
With the World Series over and the offseason having officially begun, the attention in Chicago shifts back to the Cubs. While an astute observer would note that bringing in any one player won't fix the [multitude of problems that have plagued the Cubs](https://www.betchicago.com/cubs-2018-season-eulogy-what-went-wrong-what-happens-next) since November of 2016, the right individual would be a tremendous step in the right direction. And so, the debate has begun: Bryce Harper or Manny Machado? The free agents each come with their pros and cons. The 26-year-old Harper is looking to potentially leave his only major league home of Washington D.C., while Machado – just months older than Harper – could be searching for this third team since the start of the 2018 season. Harper is a right fielder with experience at center, while Machado has proven to be an outstanding third baseman and an average-to-below-average shortstop. But which player makes the most sense for the Cubs in 2019 and beyond? Let's examine it from all angles. ## Manny Machado The baseball world saw Machado this year where it has never seen Harper – in the NLCS and World Series. Playing with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Machado clubbed three home runs in 16 playoff games this year, but his production dropped off in Los Angeles' five-game World Series loss to the Boston Red Sox. Overall in 99 career postseason plate appearances, Machado has four homers and a .650 OPS. But those playoff numbers – and Harper's numbers, which we'll get to – are a tremendously small sample. Postseason stats are skewed by how frequently batters face the best pitchers, and if you're skeptical about that, look up the career playoff stats on Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Javy Báez. Don't judge these guys on just a handful of games. What we should judge Machado on is his complete body of work, which is both good and bad. Since the start of the 2015 season, Machado has hit .284/.345/.511 with a 129 OPS+. He has stayed remarkably healthy, averaging 159 games per season while posting 36 homers per year. According to [FanGraphs](https://www.fangraphs.com/statss.aspx?playerid=11493&position=3B), Machado has compiled 21.7 WAR during those four seasons, as well. For a shortstop or third baseman, this is all impressive. Which brings us to the downside of Machado. Defensively, he has totaled 36 DRS (defensive runs saved) in 3,878 2/3 innings at third base over the last four years. However, Machado has -10 DRS in 1,694 1/3 innings at shortstop. The bulk of that comes from 2018, when he posted a -12 DRS between the Dodgers and Baltimore Orioles. The eye test says he hasn't been as bad defensively as stats suggest, so take those numbers with a grain of salt. However, by all accounts, Machado isn't a very good shortstop. At 26 years old, he can get away with it, but eventually he'll need to move back to third base. That wouldn't be a problem if Manny were accommodating to such a switch, but when Marc Carig of The Athletic asked Machado in July if he were willing to switch back to third base if it meant playing for a contender like the New York Yankees, his response was enlightening. “I’m a shortstop,” Machado [said](https://theathletic.com/426580/2018/07/10/im-a-shortstop-i-play-shortstop-despite-hurdles-orioles-star-manny-machado-would-shape-the-yankees-battle-with-the-red-sox/). “I play shortstop.” Around the same time in July, Machado [expanded upon those thoughts](http://www.baltimoresun.com/sports/orioles/blog/bs-sp-orioles-manny-machado-philadelphia-20180704-story.html?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitterv) for Jon Meoli of the Baltimore Sun. “I’m playing short,” Machado said. “That’s the position I want to play. That’s the position I know I can play and produce at. ... I’ve been a shortstop my entire life. I’ve played third base for a couple years. I did well, and I thought I was an elite player at that position, but at the end of the day, I’ve been a shortstop my entire life. I know I can be a way better player as a shortstop than I can at third.” The Cubs, as currently constructed, are somewhat crowded in the infield. Báez, an MVP candidate in 2018, plays Gold Glove-caliber defense at both second base and shortstop. Addison Russell is also an outstanding defensive player at short, but his offense lags way behind and there are plenty of [off-field reasons](https://www.betchicago.com/addison-russell-cubs-aministrative-leave-ex-wife-abuse) to believe he has played his last game in a Cubs uniform. Ben Zobrist still gets plenty of time at second base – 42 starts this season – while Bryant anchors third base. There’ also David Bote and Tommy La Stella. For a Machado deal to work, the Cubs would need to convince Bryant to move to a corner outfield spot long-term. If Machado is inflexible on his positional demands, then Báez would likely have to play third base, with Machado at shortstop, and a combination of Zobrist, Bote and La Stella at second. Among the many outfielders, probably at least one of Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ and Albert Almora Jr. would need to be traded. One final piece to the Machado puzzle needs to be discussed, and it was on full display in the postseason. Manny has been known to admire a long drive off the bat, only to end up with a hard-hit single for lack of hustle. As unpalatable as this sort of behavior can be, Harper isn't exactly exempt from it – nor is Báez, or for that fact Rizzo, Schwarber and other Cubs. If you can live with everything else you get from Machado, then the occasional lapse in judgment isn't a massive deterrent. ## Bryce Harper Minus a small contingent of fans rooting for Machado to land at Wrigley Field, there hasn't been much smoke in relation to Manny and the Cubs. On the flip side, there have been [frequent rumors tying Harper to the north side of Chicago](https://www.betchicago.com/bryce-harper-cubs-odds-next-team) in the last few years. Baseball insider Peter Gammons noted as early as June of 2017 that people were telling him that Harper [wants to play](http://www.sportingnews.com/us/mlb/news/bryce-harper-cubs-nationals-peter-gammons-chicago-radio-kris-bryant/fqecbjxs29nm12p2w750kje6e) for the Cubs, and it makes sense. Harper and Bryant are close friends, having grown up together in Las Vegas as youth baseball studs. They've posted pictures on Instagram together at Golden Knights games, started the precarious hashtag #BackToBackOneDay and even joked about the occasional game night among couples. The bromance between Bryant and Harper is real enough that Rizzo should be a bit concerned. <a href="https://www.instagram.com/p/BcEPhIch8T1/?utm_source=ig_web_button_share_sheet" class="embedly-card" data-card-width="100%" data-card-controls="1">Embedded content: https://www.instagram.com/p/BcEPhIch8T1/?utm_source=ig_web_button_share_sheet</a> As previously noted, Harper has never made it out of the NLDS with the Washington Nationals. In four trips to the postseason, Harper's team is 7-12. The star outfielder has hit .211/.315/.487 with five home runs in 89 playoff plate appearances, which looks somewhat bad on the surface but is still a higher postseason OPS (.801) than Machado, Bryant, Rizzo or Báez. Again, don't focus too much on the small sample stats. Here are the stats on Harper that matter: Since 2015, he has a slash line of .283/.410/.543, an OPS+ of 150 and an average of 142 games played with 32 home runs per year. According to [FanGraphs](https://www.fangraphs.com/statss.aspx?playerid=11579&position=OF), Harper has 20.6 WAR over those four seasons. To be blunt, Bryce Harper is really good. It's easy to see how Harper, whose Nats were eliminated from the postseason by the Cubs in 2017, might look to Chicago with envy. The Cubs made three consecutive trips to the NLCS from 2015-17, including winning the World Series in 2016. They're run by Theo Epstein, one of the smartest and most successful baseball executives in history, and they don't appear to be falling off any time soon. Even in what felt to most like a down year, the Cubs won 95 regular-season games in 2018. Harper has never been a Gold Glove outfielder on defense, but through the bulk of his career he has been anywhere from serviceable to solid. In his six seasons prior to 2018, Harper totaled 28 DRS as an outfielder, or roughly 4.6 DRS per year. Not outstanding, but above average. However, the stats this year were ugly. Harper, in fact, was detrimental in the field with -26 DRS. Defensive stats such as DRS shouldn't be applied in such a year-to-year fashion, however. These stats aren't perfect and shouldn't be viewed that way – just like with Machado and his play at shortstop. But it's fair to wonder what kind of value Harper will offer as an outfielder in the coming years, with no obvious positional switch available. You could try to hide him in left field, but currently first base is occupied by Rizzo, and there's no designated hitter in the National League. Many of the same attitude issues cited about Machado are also true – at least in public discourse – of Harper. He's somewhat of a villain, much like LeBron James in the NBA circa 2010. In fact, should Harper bolt from D.C. to a pre-made winning situation with the Cubs, comparisons to LeBron will only get louder. But anyone suggesting that winning with Harper isn't possible because of perceived attitude or hustle issues is conveniently ignoring history. Similar arguments were once used against Alex Rodriguez, Curt Schilling, Roger Clemens and others. Reggie Jackson won five World Series championships and is known as Mr. October despite his “straw that stirs the drink” comment and oversized personality. As for Harper's fit with the Cubs, not quite as much juggling would need to happen to make it work as with Machado. Harper would likely slide into right field, pushing Jason Heyward to center. It would make sense to deal at least one of Schwarber or Happ, utilizing Almora to split time with Heyward, while either rotating left field between Zobrist, Bryant and other remaining outfielders or signing a veteran bat such as Jon Jay or Nick Markakis. For the sake of our argument, throw the money consideration out the window – because there's a big TV deal on the horizon for the Cubs, and the Ricketts family is loaded anyway. Harper appears to be the better fit for the Cubs right now. His offensive potential is greater than Machado’s, and he has been considerably better at the plate over the last several years. Even if Harper ends up being a poor defender, it's easier to hide him in left field at Wrigley – as the Cubs have done with Schwarber – than it would be for Machado at shortstop. There's always the possibility that the Cubs come away with neither of these two players, but that's the worst-case scenario. Epstein knows the offense killed his team down the stretch in 2018, and they've crossed a point in their window of contention where potential can no longer weigh side-by-side with production. The Cubs need improved offensive consistency in 2019 (and beyond) if they're going to contend for championships, and signing Harper is their best avenue for accomplishing that. __Also read:__ [Odds posted on 2019 World Series](https://www.betchicago.com/2019-world-series-odds-cubs-favorites-white-sox-longshot)2018-10-29T21:41:56.827Z2018-10-29T17:41-04:00