John Middleton was standing by himself, spinning a football back and forth in his hands. The Eagles had just lost a heartbreaker to the New Orleans Saints in the divisional round of the playoffs, and Middleton, an Eagles season-ticket holder since well before his ascension to Phillies managing partner and principal owner, had taken in the game from an executive box at the Superdome. As one season was ending, another was in the midst of a whirlwind. Less than 24 hours earlier, Middleton had landed at Philadelphia International Airport after a daylong meeting with Bryce Harper and his inner circle in Las Vegas, a significant escalation in the Phillies’ attempt to convince the 26-year-old superstar to sign a long-term contract with the Phillies.

As the doors to the visitors’ locker room swung closed behind Doug Pederson, an inquisitive passerby spotted Middleton.

“So,” the interlocutor asked, “are you going to get him?”

Cradling the football, Middleton dutifully declined comment. Then, while cracking a wry grin, he added, “But thanks for the pressure.”

Some thought John Middleton made an unforced error with his "stupid money" comment.
JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer
Some thought John Middleton made an unforced error with his "stupid money" comment.

More than a month later, little has changed. Baseball’s offseason abhors a vacuum, and this year’s version has been uncharacteristically lacking in substantive information regarding its two biggest free agents. Into the void has swirled a noxious blend of our modern malnourished soup, with Twitter takes and connected dots made to satisfy all cravings. In recent weeks, we have seen Manny Machado connected to the White Sox by way of the color of his black-and-white fielding gloves (or is that actually a dark shade of navy?). We have seen Harper connected to the Giants by way of an Instagram comment from the wife of a Giants player, and we have seen him connected to the Phillies by way of his own comment on Rhys Hoskins’ Instagram page.

At times like these, with the famished masses insisting (pleading?) that things are finally coming to a head, it can be helpful to take a deep breath and take a stock of what we actually know. At the top of that list is Middleton, who surely understands that any pressure he feels is self-inflicted. One of the few things that we can say for certain is that the Phillies are willing to pay. They’ve made that known from the earliest days of the offseason, from the highest levels of the chain of command. If they fail to land either Harper or Machado, it will not be because they were outbid.

When Middleton acknowledged in a USA Today article that he might need to spend “stupid money” to achieve his vision, many interpreted it as an unforced error that sacrificed bargaining position. Really, though, it was a preemptive acknowledgment of what would have quickly become obvious. From the previous year’s firing of manager Pete Mackanin to the current offseason’s aggressive acquisitions of Jean Segura, Andrew McCutchen, and David Robertson, the Phillies’ operating philosophy was clear to agents and rival general managers alike. They were tired of rebuilding, and the greatest expression of fatigue was coming straight from the top.

Another thing that we know is that the Phillies need Harper. Look at their lineup, where their four most consistent hitters are all right-handed. Look at their outfield, where the certainty is concentrated almost exclusively in a 32-year-old outfielder who has already entered his decline phase. Look at their rotation, where you’ll need to bank on a certain level of run support to mitigate current concerns.

Without Harper, the Phillies have a potent lineup, but one that still has the potential of carrying a fatal hole. With Harper, they have an order that could lead the National League: righty Andrew McCutchen followed by Harper’s Hall of Fame lefty bat, followed by a pair of powerful righties in Rhys Hoskins and J.T. Realmuto, the latter of whom balances things out with his favorable right-on-right splits. After that, the best balance might come from lefty Odubel Herrera followed by righties Jean Segura and Maikel Franco, and then switch-hitter Cesar Hernandez rounding things out. Feel free to quibble with the second half of that order. The overarching point is that only the Dodgers could rival it.

The Phillies know this. And, after years of careful payroll management, they know they have the means to cope with even a significant overpayment.

Which is why the only questions that remain to be answered are: 1) Is Harper amenable to commit to spending his professional life in the city of Philadelphia for the next X number of years? 2) What is that number X, and what qualifications will come with it?

We know that Scott Boras is an agent who values record numbers. But we also know that he likes to maintain leverage even in long-term deals. An opt-out after 2021 would protect the player against any potential explosion in contract values that occurs as a result of a new collective bargaining agreement for the start of 2022, as well as any hesitation Harper might feel about life in a new city. But even the Phillies might blanche at the lopsided risk burden they would inherit by guaranteeing a player, say, $400 million over 10 years while only guaranteeing themselves three years of production in return (i.e., the only scenario in which he doesn’t opt out is one in which he doesn’t end up performing up to the original terms of the deal; i.e., the club assumes 100 percent of the risk that Harper is a bust, while standing to realize only some fraction of the value it would in a world in which Harper remains a superstar and under contract beyond Year 3; i.e., 10 years of guaranteed risk in exchange for three years of guaranteed (relatively speaking) production.

Then again, perhaps not. After all, the guy signing the checks does not seem like the blanching type.

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