After months of waiting, Major League Baseball’s premier free agents have finally found new homes. First, Manny Machado, one of the game’s top young infielders, signed a 10-year, $300 million contract with the San Diego Padres. Nine days later, the superstar outfielder Bryce Harper inked a massive contract of his own, signing with the Philadelphia Phillies for 13 years and $330 million. With Machado potentially playing his first exhibition game against his previous team, the Los Angeles Dodgers, on Thursday, all eyes have already turned to whether the players will live up to their new deals.
Those eye-popping, record-breaking numbers are possible because it’s extremely rare for a player of Harper’s or Machado’s caliber to enter free agency so young. More intriguing, though, is how small differences between the two contracts make Harper’s a bet on the value of long-term stability—and Machado’s a bet on the possibility of short-term growth.
With the important caveat that outsiders rarely learn all the details of what happens in closed-door negotiations, every contract in sports represents a balance between two basic interests: Teams want to get as much value as possible for their money, and players want to get as much money as possible for their value. Though both contracts will pay fairly evenly from start to finish (Harper’s tapers somewhat, from $30 million his first year to $22 million his last, while Machado’s stays at $30 million), it’s unlikely that either team believes the players will still be worth that much money in their mid to late 30s. After all, athletes in any sport typically decline in productivity as they age. A contract such as Machado’s or Harper’s is priced based on the years when they’re expected to be in their prime—in baseball, until about age 30—and those that follow. Instead, each team appears to be betting on its new player putting up enough value in the next five or so years to soften the later sting of potentially overpaying an aging superstar.