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The Bryce, Manny stalemate and the latest on MLB free agency

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Passan: Harper, Machado remaining free agents 'the new normal' (1:08)

Jeff Passan says Bryce Harper and Manny Machado remaining free agents into spring training is normal in today's league. (1:08)

The broken record of Manny Machado and Bryce Harper's free agency took another spin on the turntable Thursday. First, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported that Padres general manager A.J. Preller had flown to Miami to meet with Machado. Then, speculation over what exactly the get-together meant started in earnest. After that, sources told ESPN and other outlets that nothing was imminent, at which point Major League Baseball's public relations nightmare -- spring training abloom with two of its finest players absent -- continued with no apparent end in sight.

Here's where the free agency of the 26-year-olds stands: in the same ZIP code it did 105 days ago, when the entire process began. Three and a half months of teases, fake rumors created to gin up retweets, social-media red herrings and dissatisfaction over a process that grows more tired by the day.

The problem, of course, is that there is no incentive to end the stalemate between ...

1. Manny Machado and Bryce Harper and the teams that want to sign them. What it comes down to is a simple calculus, sources involved with the pursuit of the players told ESPN -- one that doesn't in any way lessen the frustration over the standoff but at least can go a long way toward explaining it.

On one side are Machado and Harper. The former is a four-time All-Star coming off arguably the best season of his career. The latter is a one-time MVP with a career .900 OPS and the most marketability of any active player. Both want $300 million-plus contracts. Neither seems particularly inclined to budge from that floor. Given the game's annual revenues, which hover around $10 billion, their production, their age and past precedent, the $300 million-plus ask is by no means outlandish.

On the other side are the teams. They see the state of play in baseball. The longer teams have waited to sign players, the more players have accepted deals below what they expected at the beginning of the winter. It tends to work, preying on all kinds of potential vulnerabilities -- the desire not to miss spring training or time with new teammates, familial pressure, fear of the unknown -- to force players into uncomfortable decisions. This strategy is not limited to midlevel sorts, either. The vise is real even on the crème de la crème.

Other factors further complicate the matter. Machado's agent, Dan Lozano, and Harper's agent, Scott Boras, don't like each other. It's not exactly that neither wants his client to sign first, but there is certainly a strategic element involved. Whether it's Machado or Harper who goes first, the one left over can leverage all of the interested teams against one another to create a bidding war. A savvy team could pinpoint its target, jump the market and sign one of the two, but the fear among those teams is overpaying or, worse yet, bidding against itself.

Lozano and Boras continue to project positions of strength with teams, according to executives involved in the pursuit of Machado and Harper. If the market has collapsed, the agents are showing no signs of it. What's likelier, two executives admitted, is that teams in the end may not pay full retail but certainly won't get either player for wholesale, either.

Would that be enough for ...

2. Justin Verlander and a brigade of other players to end their public grousing on the health of the free-agent market? Probably not.

One part of their messaging is hitting home: More and more players, in speaking out on the matter, are saying there are more than 100 jobless free agents. This is not true. A liberal accounting of the so-called XX(B) free agents -- ones who have six-plus years of service -- counts about 50. Of those 50, about half are clearly major-league-caliber players. A few come with enough warts to straddle the line between a big league deal and a minor league deal. The rest will get non-roster invitations to camp.

Look, 100 jobless free agents is a sexy talking point. It works. For an organization like the players' association, which has struggled with messaging, the widespread adoption of the 100-jobless-free-agents narrative is promising, especially when the message is spread in such a scattershot fashion, with Verlander's tweet the latest among this new oeuvre of player communication.

The problem is, it's not real, and when players resort to exaggerating to make a point that needs no exaggeration -- 25 legitimate big leaguers without major league deals as spring training begins is indicative of a problem -- it sets them up as boys who cried wolf. Which is a shame, seeing as their main talking point should carry a serious wallop.

Sixty percent of baseball teams are carrying payrolls $50 million below the $206 million luxury-tax threshold. Just shy of half the teams in the game are $75 million below. Eight teams are more than $100 million under the threshold. More than a quarter of the game isn't even spending half of what it can before incurring a penalty that barely penalizes anyway. It's one thing for the highest-spending teams not to exceed the luxury tax. It's another for the teams that receive tens of millions in revenue-sharing dollars to practically sit out offseasons.

So, yes, it is troublesome that Machado and Harper and Dallas Keuchel and Marwin Gonzalez and Mike Moustakas and Gio Gonzalez and Adam Jones and Josh Harrison and Clay Buchholz and Jose Iglesias and Martin Maldonado and Carlos Gonzalez and Tyler Clippard and Evan Gattis and Denard Span and Edwin Jackson and Derek Dietrich and Adam Warren and Tony Sipp and Matt Wieters and Carlos Gomez don't have jobs. They could be ...

3. Craig Kimbrel and have entered the winter telling teams he wanted a six-year deal. That never came close to materializing. Kimbrel's winter has been a perfect storm of awfulness. Bad October. Draft-pick penalty for the team that signs him because Kimbrel turned down the one-year, $17.9 million qualifying offer. Understandable ask based on his history, but risky considering how teams today view closers. No clear fallback.

The Boston Red Sox make sense in almost every regard. He helped them win a World Series. Kimbrel put up a 2.44 ERA and struck out 305 in 184⅓ innings over three seasons for them. Most of all, the defending World Series winners' closing options consist of Matt Barnes, Ryan Brasier and a host of others who have not regularly pitched high-leverage ninth innings.

Here's where they don't make sense: Because the Red Sox are nearing the third threshold of the luxury tax -- their payroll is around $240 million, and the next tax level hits at $246 million -- the price of Kimbrel would be unreasonable, even for a team like Boston that clearly does not hesitate to spend.

Say Kimbrel wants a deal that averages around $17 million a year. That's what Wade Davis and Aroldis Chapman got. Boston pays a base tax of 30 percent on every dollar over the first threshold of $206 million and an additional 12 percent surtax on every dollar from $226 million to $246 million. Anything that takes them past the $246 million mark gets taxed 75 percent total.

So assuming the Red Sox are at $240 million, the first $6 million of a theoretical Kimbrel deal would cost about $2.5 million in taxes. And on the $11 million, Boston would pay an additional $8.25 million. In other words, a $17 million-a-year Craig Kimbrel deal for the Red Sox would cost them $27.75 million this year -- or a smooth three-quarters of a million more than the New York Yankees paid reliever Adam Ottavino for three years.

Look, Boston could say: "We won the World Series last year. We're flush with cash. Let's do it." But the Red Sox didn't earn that championship through a lack of discipline. It's why Kimbrel -- or ...

4. Dallas Keuchel for that matter -- makes plenty of sense for the Atlanta Braves: They do not have any luxury-tax penalties to worry about. Atlanta is one of those teams more than $75 million under the lowest threshold. With a new stadium and a rabid fan base, Atlanta is in prime position to strike after winning the NL East last season.

The Braves' strikes this winter have been more tactical and reserved than their opponents'. The Washington Nationals signed Patrick Corbin to a $140 million deal. The Philadelphia Phillies spent on talent (Andrew McCutchen, David Robertson) and traded for more (J.T. Realmuto, Jean Segura). The New York Mets overhauled their roster. Aside from signing Josh Donaldson, the Braves more or less look the same.

Kimbrel's potential return to Atlanta probably makes more sense than Keuchel going there, especially with an excess of young, electric starters in the Braves organization. Kimbrel spent his first five seasons in Atlanta. The Braves could use some stability in the closer role, held currently by the talented but often-erratic Arodys Vizcaino.

Atlanta has proved its affinity for short-term deals. Kimbrel may ultimately be resigned to taking one. It's a marriage that, on the surface, makes plenty of sense. Sort of like ...

5. Jacob deGrom and the New York Mets. In the coming weeks, deGrom's current agents are expected to start negotiations with his former agent, Brodie Van Wagenen, who happens to be the Mets' current GM. The awkwardness is clear: Six months ago, Van Wagenen was intent on squeezing every last penny from the Mets. Now his job is to pinch them for the team.

There is a distinct possibility the discussions go nowhere, with the rift of free agency manifesting itself in extension talks. Clearly deGrom's performance makes a compelling case. Through nearly 900 innings, his career ERA is 2.67. He is coming off a Cy Young-winning season. The Mets adore him personally. As they lean into contention, they do so with him squarely atop their rotation.

On the other hand, deGrom turns 31 this year, is a decade removed from Tommy John surgery and has two seasons of team control remaining, which doesn't exactly scream urgency, particularly with deGrom on Thursday declining to leverage the Mets by threatening to cut off further negotiations until after the 2020 season, unless he has an extension by Opening Day. Further, Phillies ace Aaron Nola just signed a four-year, $45 million deal that can reach $56.75 million with a club option. Nola is five years younger than deGrom and was due to hit free agency only a year after him.

While deGrom's $17 million salary this season places him in something of a different financial stratosphere than Nola, it's still a comparable the Mets are certain to bring up. Signing a player long term? Not the Mets' style. Signing a player for large dollars? Not the Mets' style, either. Doing both? Really not the Mets' style.

This is not to be all Debbie Downer about extension talks. It's more to remind that for all the talk about the Mets locking up deGrom, there is a giant chasm to bridge, lest he be more like ...

6. Trevor Bauer, who doesn't want a long-term deal. After winning an arbitration case against the Cleveland Indians for the second consecutive year, Bauer lamented what he felt were personal insults lobbed at him during the hearing but more important affirmed his previously stated commitment to never sign a multiyear deal.

Yes, Bauer wants to be a baseball mercenary. He wants to use teams' affinity for one-year contracts and coax the most money possible out of them. He believes enough in his training program and arm health to feel he can avoid the sort of injury that makes long-term deals so intriguing to players.

The ultimate goal, he hopes, is that a team allows him to start every fourth day. Bauer believes he can make 40-plus starts per season, and while that would entail the sort of rotation rejiggering that would tighten the market of interested teams, those who have bred flexibility into their pitchers -- the Tampa Bay Rays' opener-heavy 2018 provides the guidebook to doing so -- could make it work.

Bauer isn't a free agent until 2020, and most of his peers don't share his appetite for risk -- or change -- even if the philosophy behind it is sound. Just look at ...

7. Nolan Arenado, who would be locked up by the Colorado Rockies now were he content with a seven-year contract. The Rockies are loath to go beyond that number, which would lock up Arenado through his age-35 season, even though their deal last year with outfielder Charlie Blackmon holds onto him through his 36th birthday.

The possibility of an extension for Arenado remains, though it's not nearly the cinch owner Dick Monfort made it out to be when he told reporters the sides were "to the finals" after they settled on a one-year, $26 million deal for Arenado's final season before free agency.

While markets clearly change -- at this point last year, Machado and Harper were no-brainer options for at least half the teams in baseball -- the love for Arenado is shared far and wide in front offices around the game. The free-agent class of 2019-20 looks strong on paper too, headlined by Arenado, third baseman Anthony Rendon, starters Gerrit Cole, Chris Sale and Madison Bumgarner, first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, shortstop Xander Bogaerts, outfielder Khris Davis and plenty more (Didi Gregorius, Miles Mikolas, Zack Wheeler, Scooter Gennett, Aaron Hicks, Donaldson).

The Rockies' aggressiveness isn't limited to Arenado. They've discussed potential long-term deals with a number of their young starters, though none have bitten yet. Oftentimes it takes a year from those first conversations to contracts being agreed upon. Last year around this time ...

8. Max Kepler and Jorge Polanco turned down deals from the Minnesota Twins, as did pitcher Jose Berrios and outfielder Byron Buxton. On Thursday, Kepler and Polanco finalized extensions, with the former getting $35 million over five years with one club option and the latter $25.75 million for five years with a pair of club options.

Each deal bought out a potential three years of free agency and highlighted what's becoming something of a trend this spring: young players forgoing free-agent years for the allure of guaranteed money. Frustration isn't the only emotion the substandard free-agent markets of the past two winters have caused players. There's fear, too. And that fear is reflected in the extensions of Nola, Kepler and Polanco.

Not that any of the three don't believe in themselves. On the contrary. They're simply wary of the market, of the unhealthy dynamic that has wormed itself into the relationship between teams and players. They see what ...

9. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is about to go through and wonder: How is this a system that works for both parties? Guerrero, for those who haven't heard, may be the best pure hitter to emerge in the minor leagues since Miguel Cabrera. He's got the pedigree and precociousness of his Hall of Fame father, and a half-dozen scouts who saw him in Double-A and Triple-A last season agreed: He could hit, and hit well, in the major leagues right now.

The likelihood of him being there on Opening Day with the Toronto Blue Jays, however, is minuscule. Why? The collective bargaining agreement incentivizes teams from breaking camp with rookies who deserve to be in the major leagues.

Here's why: There are 186 days on the major league calendar in 2019. A year of service takes 172 days in the major leagues. Teams control a player's rights for six full years. All a team needs to do is keep a player in the minor leagues for 15 days, and it can get almost an entire extra year of the player without exposing him to free agency.

If the Blue Jays wait until April 12 to purchase Guerrero's contract, he will not be a free agent until after the 2025 season. If he breaks camp with the Blue Jays and stays with them all year, he would be a free agent following 2024. Thus, all Toronto needs to do is come up with an excuse to start Guerrero at Triple-A Buffalo -- where he hit .336/.414/.564 after slashing .402/.449/.671 in Double-A -- and there's not much the players' association can do about it.

Already the Blue Jays have started girding for sending Guerrero down. General manager Ross Atkins told reporters Thursday that "there is no firm timeline on when he arrives and when he is playing in Toronto for the first time. But we want to make sure he's the best possible third baseman, best possible hitter he can be."

Translation: The kid ain't gonna be at Rogers Centre on March 28. Mark your calendar, instead, for April 12, which is the 16th day of the season. Hopefully by then ...

10. Manny Machado and Bryce Harper will be wearing major league uniforms too. The notion of them holding out until April, while not explicitly threatened yet, is not entirely unrealistic, either. It's true: All it takes is one team to look at its roster, its opponents -- anything, really -- and say that it's time to pony up.

The Padres' involvement with Machado is an example of that. Two sources said they are enamored with him and would love to build around Machado as their huge wave of minor league talent begins its ascent to the major leagues. Another source cautioned: After spending $140 million on Eric Hosmer last year, do the Padres really have $300 million to give Machado?

Theoretically, sure. The Padres are profitable. They've got only two players under contract beyond 2020: Hosmer and Wil Myers. The incentive is clear, and it would send quite a message: that if the Padres, whose market size ranks 27th of the 30 major league teams, are willing to throw around potential record cash in free agency, surely others can. Even San Diego's flirtation with the idea should be enough.

It's not as if Machado's and Harper's markets are vacant. The Philadelphia Phillies remain in on both. So do the Chicago White Sox. The San Francisco Giants and Washington Nationals have expressed interest in Harper, and the New York Yankees with Machado. Surely there are others whose back channeling has not been made public.

Still, no offer has been strong enough to thaw the impasse that is both microcosm and manifestation of the labor unrest percolating in the game. As easy as it would be to lose faith in a marketplace that has treated them so well so many times, Lozano and Boras still believe in market forces enough to wait -- to convince their clients, both of whom want to be in a uniform this week, that patience isn't a virtue, it's the only virtue.

Two can play at that game, counter the teams, and they're right. Two are playing at that game, and it's only fair, even if it helped turn baseball's bustling offseason into a single, tired question that's asked by people around the game: Where are Bryce and Manny going?

The answer will come. The broken record will spin again. And it can't happen soon enough.