CLEARWATER, Fla. -- The two private flights to Las Vegas. The countless hours of negotiations. The dreams of what could be. And even more, what it could mean.
All of that came to realization on Thursday afternoon when the Phillies signed Bryce Harper, one of baseball’s biggest stars, to the most lucrative contract in American sports history. A process that started four months ago and included as much drama as a 162-game season ended with the Phillies landing their man.
The Phillies and Harper, according to a source, agreed to a 13-year contract worth $330 million. The contract has a no-trade clause, but it does not have an opt-out clause. Harper, his agent told reporters, wanted to stay in one city for the rest of his career. That city will be Philadelphia.
“The sky’s the limit for him,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “There’s really no ceiling.”
Phillies owner John Middleton flew his private jet to Las Vegas last week to meet with Harper; his wife, Kayla; and his agent, Scott Boras, in Harper’s hometown. Middleton, accompanied by the team’s power brokers, had flown out six weeks earlier for a similar meeting. But this time, he arrived alone. Middleton was there to get an answer.
The owner left town without a deal, but the groundwork for a franchise-altering contract had been laid.
Middleton, who has become a more public face in recent years, became even more motivated to land Harper after his team was outbid recently by San Diego for infielder Manny Machado. Middleton created buzz in November that his team might spend “stupidly” this offseason. And he was fully aware what the public perception would be if an offseason that started stupid ended without a superstar.
“They said it. How they were going to spend money,” star pitcher Aaron Nola said. “It’s exciting. It’s really exciting for all of us. He’s a superstar. Our team is already better without him. But now that we got him, it takes it up a notch.”
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The 26-year-old Harper has averaged 32.25 homers per year over the last four seasons with a .952 OPS. If he plays all 13 seasons of his contract, Harper will be 39 years old and have spent as many years in a Phillies uniform as Ryan Howard and Chase Utley.
Since 2015, Harper ranks within the top five of all outfielders in homers, RBIs, slugging percentage, and on-base percentage. And those numbers, the Phillies believe, could get even better.
He has more home runs at Citizens Bank Park than in any other stadiums he has played in as a visitor. Harper, Kapler said, is “tailor made” for the ballpark’s hitter-friendly confines. The manager drew out mock lineups all winter imagining where he would bat Harper. He said Thursday that Harper would bat third or fourth for the Phillies.
The Phillies strategically spread out Harper’s contract over 13 years, which allows them to keep their payroll flexible against baseball’s luxury tax as much as possible.
Signing Harper will not prevent the Phillies from being aggressive in future offseasons or handcuff them from signing their own players to long-term deals. And perhaps most important, the structure of Harper’s deal keeps alive a fan’s dream of signing Mike Trout, the South Jersey-bred superstar who is scheduled to be a free agent after the 2020 season.
The Phillies committed $440 million in salary this offseason by adding Harper, outfielder Andrew McCutchen, reliever David Robertson, shortstop Jean Segura and catcher J.T. Realmuto. The Phillies added four former All-Stars to provide a facelift to a lineup that finished last season with the fewest hits in baseball and was below average in nearly every offensive category.
Those moves signaled that the Phillies, after seven seasons of irrelevance, were ready to win again. General manager Matt Klentak molded the Phillies this winter into a division contender. But Harper’s arrival elevates them to pennant contenders. The Phillies, a decade removed from their last World Series appearance, are far from irrelevant.
“You’ve seen him. Everybody has seen him. You know what you’re going to get,” said McCutchen, who signed a three-year deal in December. “He’s intense but in a sense of wanting to win and wanting to succeed. That’s something that you love to have. He’s a competitor and he’s going to battle you. He’s a threat in the lineup. It’s exciting stuff.”
The confidence that Middleton brought back from Vegas seemed to dim when the Phillies learned Monday morning that the Los Angeles Dodgers had pulled into Harper’s hometown just 24 hours after Middleton left. The mood became even more dire when the San Francisco Giants hit Vegas on Tuesday. The Phillies had some competition.
It was reported throughout the offseason that Harper would want to play on the West Coast. He would be close to home and perhaps would have the chance to become an even bigger star with the help of Hollywood. But the Phillies knew they had the deepest pockets and an owner who was willing to do whatever it took to end this offseason with a superstar on his roster.
The word finally came down Thursday afternoon as the Phillies played a forgettable spring-training game against the Baltimore Orioles.
“We had some fans behind us who were sharing moment by moment tweets with us,” Kapler said when asked how he found out the Phillies had signed Harper. “Literally four fans right behind where we were sitting were telling us terms and who was tweeting what. We were like ‘Who is making the reports?’ We had to make sure that this person is credible.”
The news was credible. The confidence felt a week ago was not for naught. The Phillies, after a process that often seemed never-ending, had a superstar.