Harper has deflected all free-agency talk, but it has swelled around him nonetheless: Will the 25-year-old star sign the largest contract in baseball history? Can he surpass $400 million? What city does he favor? Did he really imply on Instagram that he wants to join the Cubs? The narrative can be overwhelming. When Harper began the season with five hits and three home runs in his first four games, it wasn’t just a hot streak. It was, as ESPN put it, “a $400 million start.”
Just up I–95, the Orioles confront next winter’s shadow from a slightly different vantage point. Like the Nationals, they have a star set to hit free agency after this season. Unlike the Nationals, they have next to no hope of winning a World Series before he leaves. Thus, the biggest story of Baltimore’s season, maybe the only story worth following for non-Orioles fans, will be the team’s attempt to trade Machado, to get something in return for the All Star before he bolts.
As baseball’s July 31 trade deadline approaches, the upcoming free-agent class will take on even greater relevance. Soon, the trade market will fill with players whose teams would rather deal them than lose them for nothing when their contracts expire in November, leaving numerous playoff hopefuls weighing the relative value of essentially renting a player for a few months. Some teams might decide there’s no reason to give up valuable pieces for players they can simply sign in November, while others might conclude that acquiring a star during the season and letting him find comfort with their organization will increase their odds of inking him to a long-term deal. These tradeoffs exist every season, but they’ll be extra pertinent this summer.
In addition to shaping the present and future of baseball on the field, the impending offseason could have a seismic effect on the economics of the game. Last winter’s paucity of big-money signings led some observers to wonder whether baseball’s financial system was broken, as others argued that the lack of nine-figure offers was a blip that would be quickly reversed with the coming cast of All-Star free agents. Which side proves correct could go a long way toward deciding just how contentious the 2021 collective bargaining negotiations wind up being, and whether the business of baseball ultimately gets an overhaul.
In that way and in others, the impact of the coming free-agent class will last long after the ink dries on Harper and Machado’s contracts. Some organizations will land franchise-changing players next winter. Others will overpay for talent and regret it for years. Still others will fail to land a marquee name and wonder why they wasted so much time looking forward to this offseason in the first place. General managers’ jobs and reputations will depend on their ability to navigate the loaded free-agent market. A decade’s worth of World Series could be determined by who signs where.
But before all that, the Dodgers must decide whether to replace Seager with Machado. Their choice will depend on a number of factors, including the team’s performance, the performance of their fill-ins, and the Orioles’ asking price. It will also depend, quite crucially, on the question executives across the league have been asking themselves for months, each time they ponder a major move: How will this affect our strategy next winter?