The Braves, who not long ago had holes everywhere except first base, have plugged most of the non-pitching ones. An exception is third base, where the Jose Bautista Experiment is ongoing but not a real solution. Austin Riley, the heir apparent, was just promoted to Triple-A. There is, however, an immediate fix available. It wouldn’t be cheap. It might even be a mistake. But it’s tantalizing to consider.
The Braves could trade for Manny Machado.
He’s the best player on the worst team in baseball. Baltimore has started 8-27. According to FanGraphs, it has a 0.0 percent chance of making the playoffs. Machado is set to become a free agent at season’s end. He figured to be the hottest item ahead of the midsummer trade deadline, but the Orioles’ awful start – on Tuesday, Dylan Bundy became the first starting pitcher to yield four homers without recording an out – has accelerated everything. Machado is available now.
The Orioles would want a package of prospects. The Braves have baseball’s best farm system. The catch: Alex Anthopoulos, who inherited these prospects, would surely be loath to raze the minor-league system for a five-month rental. The Braves once did that, dealing five youngsters for 12 months of Mark Teixeira. There’s your object lesson as to what not to do.
No matter what team acquires him, there’s little chance Machado would commit to re-upping long term before this season is done. His agent is Scott Boras, who has long relished the thought of the coming offseason, which will also see Bryce Harper – represented by guess who – become a free agent. Dan Szymborski of ESPN estimates Machado’s next contract could fetch $300 million over eight years. That’s $37.5 million per annum. The Braves are owned by Liberty Media, which lately has shown no inclination to spend anywhere close to that. (Freddie Freeman’s deal tops out at $22 million.)
But hold on. Buoyed by the move to Cobb County, Braves’ revenues have spiked. The nice thing about a young team is that it’s also a cheap team, although pre-emptive extensions for Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna Jr. can’t be far off. Machado is 25. Put him at third base – he also plays shortstop – alongside Dansby Swanson, Albies and Freeman, and what do you have? The most talented infield in baseball.
Everyone always figures every big-ticket free agent will alight in New York or Los Angeles, but what if Machado were to come here and see the massive potential of this organization? What if he hits behind Albies and Acuna and ahead of Freeman and loves life in the A-T-L? What if he (and Boras) think, “That wouldn’t seem the worst place to spend the next decade, give or take?” Would Liberty Media – which signed off on $75.25 million for Melvin Upton Jr. in those long-ago days of Frank Wren – say, “We’ve got a chance to have the best team in baseball for a good long while. Shouldn’t we do this?”
Someone in this front office would have to do a selling job on his bosses. Anthopoulos is uniquely suited. Only two MLB clubs have corporate ownership: He has served as general manager for both. While with the Blue Jays, property of the Canadian conglomerate Rogers Communications, he dealt four prospects for third baseman Josh Donaldson, who became the 2015 American League MVP and led Toronto to the playoffs for the first time since Joe Carter’s home run. Though Anthopoulos resigned after the 2015 season, Donaldson re-upped with the Jays over the winter. Rogers Inc. didn’t let him become a rental.
What might the Orioles take for Machado? A guess is four of the Braves’ top 15 prospects. Riley would be an obvious choice. Then two of these pitchers: Kolby Allard, Ian Anderson, Luiz Gohara, Joey Wentz. (Can’t see Anthopoulos parting with Mike Soroka or Kyle Wright.) Then maybe infielder Travis Demerritte, though not outfielder Cristian Pache. Yes, that’d be a lot. No, you wouldn’t do it if you thought you couldn’t keep Machado beyond October. But if you believed you could …
Machado has already had three seasons of a 6.7 Baseball-Reference WAR or better. (By way of comparison, Harper has had one.) After a down 2017, Machado has returned to top-shelf form. He’s back at shortstop, which might also be an option here. Could Swanson scoot over to third base? Could Swanson, as opposed to Riley, be traded for Machado?
Put Machado on this team, and the Braves would have a real chance not just at the playoffs, but at the division title. Keep him here beyond 2018 and they, along with the Cubs and possibly the Dodgers, would rank as the class of the league. John Coppolella and John Hart knew there’d come a time when they’d need to use their stockpile of young arms to complete this rebuild; Anthopoulos is clever enough to have figured it out. This would be a super-aggressive move, but it wouldn’t be a crazy one – and it mightn’t be a move that will can wait until July.
The Dodgers just lost shortstop Corey Seager, their best everyday player, to Tommy John surgery. The Dodgers have a top-10 system themselves and can, when the mood strikes, outspend anybody. They’re also 15-20, nine games behind Arizona in the National League West, with Clayton Kershaw again on the disabled list. L.A. is seen as the most likely destination for Machado, but we shouldn’t sleep on the local club.
The Braves lead the NL East. They’ve grabbed the attention of their city – indeed, of their entire sport. Their assets dovetail with the Orioles’ needs, and the O’s can’t let their best player leave for nothing. As much as I’d hate seeing this lovingly assembled farm system depleted so soon, there aren’t many Manny Machados out there. That man in this lineup would be a sight to behold.