CLEARWATER, Fla. – Bryce Harper isn’t here.
His whereabouts are unknown, much like his intentions. He’s probably at home in Las Vegas. Right now, though, he definitely isn’t traversing the grounds at Spectrum Field, the spring home of the Philadelphia Phillies.
Of course, that means nothing. It’s still possible this ridiculously protracted process ends with Harper in Philadelphia, after all. No team has been linked to Harper as persistently this offseason as the Phillies, who were said to be in deep and serious negotiations with the 26-year-old superstar as recently as last weekend, when team owner John Middleton flew to Vegas to meet with him. Since then, however, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ interest in the six-time All-Star appears to have been reignited, and the San Francisco Giants haven’t capitulated in their pursuit, either. Only a fool would write off the New York Yankees.
But Phillies ace Aaron Nola ultimately isn’t concerned about how Harper’s free-agent story ends. Not really. Wherever he lands, this year is going to be different in Philly.
It’s going to be better.
“I mean, it’d definitely be a good addition,” Nola admitted to RunSportBet. “I don’t know what (Harper’s) plan is going forward. But looking around our clubhouse and the guys we have, we’re going to be a good team regardless.
“We’re ready to compete. We surprised a lot of people last year. Everybody thought we were going to rebuild again and we kind of took it up a notch. And I think this year we’re going to take it up a step more.”
That seems to be the consensus in the Phillies’ clubhouse: The losing stops now, with or without Harper.
The Phillies last made the playoffs in 2011, during the halcyon days of Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard, and that indomitable rotation led by the late Roy Halladay. They haven’t finished with a winning record since.
The losing was strategic over the last few years, a long-term gambit to one day field a sustainable winner. But it was difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel as recently as 2017, when the Phillies went 66-96, finishing last in the National League East for the third time in four seasons.
The rebuild began to pay its first dividends – modest as they were – last year, after the club added Jake Arrieta and Carlos Santana in free agency and hired a new, analytically inclined manager in Gabe Kapler. The Phillies occupied first place in the standings for most of July and part of August before a September swoon sunk their postseason hopes. They finished 80-82.
Still, the tremendous year-over-year improvement, along with encouraging performances from several key young players, convinced the Phillies’ front office to be aggressive this offseason, to use its resources (capital and otherwise) to bridge the small but significant gap separating Philadelphia from October.
First, the Phillies acquired All-Star shortstop Jean Segura from Seattle in December. Less than two weeks later, they signed former National League MVP Andrew McCutchen to a three-year contract. In early January, veteran reliever David Robertson also signed a three-year deal. Then, in perhaps their boldest offseason move, they brokered a deal with the Miami Marlins for All-Star catcher J.T. Realmuto.
In two months, the organization was rejuvenated, transformed from promising dark horse to legitimate contender.
“It’s a complete 360 from last year,” right-hander Nick Pivetta said. ” … I was always hyped, but once we really started dipping into the free-agent market and making some moves, getting some great veteran guys here to really push us into those next levels … (we) really just capitalized on what we needed to change.”
Added Nola: “It feels good. It feels better because we got better guys. We got older veterans on the team that have been to the playoffs, won the playoffs, World Series, MVPs, best at their position for years.”
The projection models aren’t quite as bullish. Four weeks from Opening Day, Baseball Prospectus’ algorithm projects the Phillies to win 85 games, putting them on the periphery of the National League wild-card hunt, while FanGraphs’ model envisages a more modest 81-81 finish. Finding a unanimous definition of success in the immediate wake of a rebuild is almost impossible, but a .500 season would undoubtedly constitute a failure.
“It’s always going to be the playoffs,” veteran reliever Pat Neshek said. “I think we got to get in there one way or another, whether that be (as a) wild card or winning the division.”
“You try to win every game,” Nola said. “It’s not going to happen. It’s never been done before. But that’s the mindset we have to have.”
“World Series championship,” quipped Pivetta. “That’s about it.”
Harper would make those projections considerably gaudier and give the Phillies a much greater margin for error in the increasingly stacked NL East, where every team except the moribund Miami Marlins is vying, whole-assed, for the division title. He’s Bryce Harper, after all: The dinger-smashing, good-hair-having on-base machine who’s accrued more WAR through his age-25 season than all but 16 post-integration players.
Last year, in what was widely viewed as a disappointing season by Harper’s standard, he had an .889 OPS (133 OPS+) with 34 homers, 34 doubles, and a major-league-leading 130 walks over a career-best 159 games. And, meaning no disrespect, Nick Williams, the Phillies’ incumbent right fielder, is Nick Williams.
“I mean, anytime that you can put a generational player in the clubhouse, it just makes us that much better,” Pivetta said. “Adding a guy like that, it’s not going to hurt your squad, it’s only going to elevate us to that next level, and it’s going to give a lot of guys an extra little push. Not to say that we can’t do it with the guys we have in this room right now, because we’ve made a lot of great moves, but it doesn’t hurt.”
If the Phillies don’t end up signing Harper, it’s hard to see Middleton fulfilling his early-offseason pledge to “maybe even be a little bit stupid” with his money this winter. Despite their myriad additions, the Phillies’ year-over-year payroll only increased by $34 million, according to Cot’s, with their total outlay for 2019 hovering just below $129 million. Last year, the Baltimore Orioles lost 115 games with a payroll of $130 million.
With Manny Machado off the board, no remaining free agent – not Dallas Keuchel or Craig Kimbrel – would really require the Phillies to throw financial caution to the wind. Nor would they as ably position the organization for long-term success, the presumed goal of any rebuild, but one not really advanced by the Phillies’ earlier offseason additions: McCutchen’s already 32, Realmuto will be a free agent in two years, and Robertson, though effective, is a relief pitcher.
With each passing day, the likelihood of the Phillies consummating a deal with Harper seems to dwindle. The club recently extended him an offer worth more than $300 million, according to Jon Heyman of MLB Network, and Harper – who’s expressed his desire to play close to home in Las Vegas – hasn’t budged. According to a report Tuesday, Phillies officials have become concerned Harper will sign with Los Angeles if the Dodgers make an offer that merely approximates theirs.
But at this point, the guys in the Phillies’ clubhouse simply want to stop being asked about hypotheticals.
“I think any addition is welcome, but it’s kind of getting to the point that’s all anybody talks about, too,” Neshek said. “But we’re happy. I think we can really do well with what we have right now.”
Indeed, for the first time in a veritable eternity, the Phillies don’t have to wonder about what could be.
Jonah Birenbaum is RunSportBet’s senior MLB writer. He steams a good ham. You can find him on Twitter @birenball.