All 60 Phillies players have checked into Clearwater, and all 60 will take the field this morning for the team’s first full workout of spring training. But as the players empty out of the Spectrum Field clubhouse, the attention will remain on the two players who are not here but soon could be here. Bryce Harper and Manny Machado are still free agents, but that could change soon.
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— Matt Breen (firstname.lastname@example.org)
John Middleton did not look on Sunday afternoon like a man ready to sign the biggest free agent of his life as he milled around the Phillies’ spring-training complex. The team’s owner moved through the back fields and hung around the cage as hitters took batting practice. He even ate lunch in the stadium cafeteria.
If talks between the Phillies and Bryce Harper were “intensifying,” as MLB Network’s Jon Heyman reported, then Middleton was coolly playing his cards. Each day in spring training will be filled with more and more rumors as Harper and Manny Machado remain unsigned. But a deal, based on the vibe Sunday at Phillies camp, did not feel imminent.
The Phillies, according to a source, still expect to end free agency with Harper or Machado. A source also said Sunday that nothing between the team and Harper was close. But that could change quickly. The Phillies’ deal last March for Jake Arrieta came together in a matter of days after weeks of rumors. The market for Harper and Machado will begin to move daily if not hourly.
The reasons are simple for the Phillies to remain confident they will sign one of the superstars: money. It is hard to imagine the Phillies’ being outbid, especially as traditionals powers such as the Dodgers and Yankees seem to fall out of the race. Middleton has given general manager Matt Klentak his full support to land a superstar. The owner, after seven straight seasons without a playoff berth, is hungry to win again.
The San Diego Padres, after signing first baseman Eric Hosmer last year to a $144 million deal, emerged Sunday as the Phillies’ biggest threat for Machado and Harper. The Padres, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune, offered Machado more than $250 million and have made an aggressive offer to Harper. The Phillies, after a long offseason, perhaps just needed a little push before they dipped into the superstar market. The mellowness of Sunday afternoon could soon be over.
The Phillies need Bryce Harper and are willing to spend. The only way they miss out, David Murphy writes, is if Harper takes a lesser offer. The Cheese says the Phillies will not be outbid.
Speaking of free agents, David Robertson was one this winter before he signed with the Phillies. He talked to Scott Lauber about why he chose to be his own agent in an uncertain winter and how that process worked for him.
No catcher caught late Marlins star Jose Fernandez more than J.T. Realmuto. Realmuto has experience with greatness and now, Bob Brookover writes, he’ll get his chance to catch Aaron Nola. Brookie talked to Realmuto about catching Fernandez and his first impressions of Nola.
Jerad Eickhoff threw a pain-free bullpen session, which for him was enough to call Sunday a “great day.” The Phillies starter is working his way back from a difficult season as he tries to overcome nerve damage in his hand.
Today: Phillies hold first full workout of spring training, 10 a.m.
Friday: Phillies open Grapefruit League play at the Rays, 1:05 p.m.
Saturday: Phillies’ first spring-training home game, vs. Pirates, 1:05 p.m.
Sunday: Phillies hit the road again, travel to the Tigers, 1:05 p.m.
If the Phillies sign Bryce Harper, it will mark their 10th straight opening day with a new face in right field. Good luck naming the last nine: Nick Williams (2018), Michael Saunders (2017), Peter Bourjos (2016), Grady Sizemore (2015), Marlon Byrd (2014), John Mayberry Jr. (2013), Hunter Pence (2012), Ben Francisco (2011), and Jayson Werth (2010).
Werth started three straight years in right field before he signed with the Nationals. Perhaps it would be fitting if the Phillies restored stability in right field by signing Harper away from the team to which Werth went.
Send questions by email or on Twitter @matt_breen.
Question: Why not consider an addition to your column? Each day select one player from the 40 man roster and write a paragraph or two about him? — John B., email
Answer: Well, this wasn’t a question but, rather, a suggestion. But it was a good suggestion. Thanks, John. We’ll have more during spring training on Hector Neris, but we want to share some comments about Neris after the first week of pitcher-and-catcher workouts.
Team president Andy MacPhail said last October in his end-of-the-year address: “God bless him, one of my favorite people on the team, Hector Neris, I mean, which Hector Neris is coming into camp: the one that since he came back from Lehigh Valley he struck out more than half the batters he’s faced, or the guy who gave up eight home runs in 11 innings?”
The Phillies added to their bullpen this winter by signing David Robertson and trading for Juan Nicasio, James Pazos, and Jose Alvarez. There is plenty of competition this spring, but Neris’ performance in last season’s second half — 35 strikeouts against 69 batters faced — is enough to keep Neris in the thick of the race.
So what happened to Neris when he returned last season from triple A? Did he rediscover the splitter that was so dominant earlier in his career? No. Instead, it was his fastball. Neris used his fastball nearly 30-percent more often when he returned from triple A. The pitch was dominant, and it made his splitter that much better. He will be one of the more interesting pitchers to watch when games begin Friday.