MLB.com Columnist

Anthony Castrovince

Machado vs. Harper a prelude to '18 drama

Nats, O's set to open 4-game Interleague slate tonight

Machado vs. Harper a prelude to '18 drama

They arrived easily. It wasn't especially difficult for the Nationals and Orioles to lose 103 and 98 games, respectively, in 2009, and it wasn't especially difficult for them to decide what to do with the prominent Draft picks that accompanied those unsatisfactory showings.

"It was an easy choice," was how Nats general manager Mike Rizzo described the selection of Bryce Harper at No. 1 overall at the time.

"He makes the game look so easy" was how Manny Machado's high school coach, Lazaro Fundora, described Machado, and the O's scouts agreed enough to take Machado at No. 3.

So, yeah, the Draft was the easy part.

It has been followed by the fun part, which is watching Harper and Machado play -- something that, assuming Harper's recently tweaked groin cooperates, they will do on the same field Monday night, when the four-game set we call the Battle of the Beltways begins at Camden Yards. These guys both made an instant impact in their age-19 season in 2012, and in the time since, they've blossomed into the elite among the elite.

"Franchise-changers" is how one executive described them.

Harper living up to the hype

And that brings us to the hard part for the Nationals and Orioles, which will be that moment, just 18 months from now, when Harper and Machado will be eligible to venture out and change other franchises altogether.

(Or maybe even -- gulp -- the same franchise together.)

Harper and Machado will be 26-year-old superstars on the open market -- a very rare and very valuable opportunity that has already engendered plenty of industry speculation about potential numbers and landing spots. The Yankees and Phillies, notably, have both seemed to revolve their entire long-term budgets around what looks to be a loaded post-2018 free-agent class, and we know well how big-market ballclubs can escalate a market.

The side effects of all that speculation are the subtle, unstated races taking place.

In a way, Machado (already worth 1.4 Wins Above Replacement this season, per Baseball Reference) and Harper (1.9) are competing against each other, trying to align themselves for the biggest piece of the 2018 free-agent pie.

Must C: Machado's amazing play

When evaluators were casually asked during Spring Training what they thought of the "Harper or Machado?" question, opinions seemed pretty split. Harper's got that 2015 National League MVP Award in his back pocket (and by the looks of things early on, he might have another one coming in '17), probably has a higher offensive ceiling and doesn't have two knee surgeries in his past, as Machado does. But Machado has been the more durable player in recent years and has inherently more defensive value in the infield, where he is sensational (and it's a given that he could handle a full-time switch to short, if that's where a team had a need).

If you've got, oh, upwards of half a billion lying around, whom do you go with?

"I wouldn't want to have to be the one to make that decision," one manager said.

Just as there's a race, of sorts, between Machado and Harper, their clubs are in a race against time. Extension attempts have gone nowhere, and while the championship window might not slam shut when one or both depart their original club, it definitely changes. There was a USA Today report during the Winter Meetings that the Nats had balked at Harper's request for a 10-year, $400 million deal, right around the time Orioles manager Buck Showalter did an interview session with reporters in which he was asked about the O's timetable with Machado. 

"We've got control of him two years?" Showalter asked rhetorically. "That's when my contract runs out. Timing's everything."

Machado's great all-around game

The entire Orioles organization operates around that timing. Machado, Showalter, Adam Jones, Zach Britton and general manager Dan Duquette are all signed through 2018. Harper's free agency aligns with that of fellow slugger Daniel Murphy

So these clubs could look quite a bit different by then. That puts added heft on the present, in which the Nationals and Orioles have logged two of the best records in the game so far in 2017.

Rizzo made the Nationals' win-at-all-costs intent clear when he raided the farm system for Adam Eaton. The danger of such a dynamic move revealed itself when Eaton tore his ACL, but there's been no let-up without him. Though the Nats famously haven't made it past the first round of the postseason, the odds of another attempt, particularly given the adversity that has struck their fiercest division foes in Queens, are in their favor.

Statcast: Bryce's hardest-hit HR

The Orioles have been pretty aggressive in keeping their power-prone lineup intact, with the re-signings of Chris Davis and Mark Trumbo in successive offseasons. Still, what continually stands out about the O's is not any one transaction, but the way their formula (typically built around a power/defense/good 'pen management portfolio) routinely exceeds expectations.

That's the backdrop that brings us to an intriguing Interleague set that will include a pair of games in each club's home park. Right now, it's Harper and Machado, the barons of the Beltways, homegrown heroes on clubs built to win.

For the Nationals and Orioles, this is the fun part. And with the hard part coming up quickly, they need to keep making the most of this fun while it lasts.

Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.