CLEARWATER, Fla. — Once last season ended amid the embers of a 16-33 collapse and an 80-82 finish, Phillies officials began discussing how they could “move the needle” — to use general manager Matt Klentak’s well-worn words — toward 90 victories.
Those moves surely nudged the needle. But landing Bryce Harper was always the blockbuster with the most potential to break it. And at long last, after 118 days and owner John Middleton’s recruiting mission to Las Vegas last week, the Phillies agreed to contract terms with the star right fielder, a league source confirmed Thursday. The deal, which will become official once Harper passes a physical, is worth $330 million over 13 years and will be the biggest free-agent contract in American sports history.
But on a micro level, Harper-to-the-Phillies is a tsunami, a move that ranks with Pete Rose in 1978, Jim Thome in 2002 and Cliff Lee in 2010 as the most significant signings in club history. Manager Gabe Kapler, who couched his comments with “if the reports are true” because the Phillies have not yet made an announcement, went so far as to call it “franchise-altering.”
With a left-handed swing that should be perfectly suited for Citizens Bank Park, Harper turns the Phillies into the preseason favorite to win the loaded National League East, ahead of the reigning-champion Atlanta Braves, the bulked-up New York Mets, and even the dangerous (but Harper-less) Washington Nationals.
Harper represents more than that, though. He’s a shot of adrenaline for a team that hasn’t had a winning season since 2011 and hasn’t drawn more than 2.5 million fans since 2013. And he was the people’s choice. A reporter for the Phillies’ website recently ran a Twitter poll asking fans if they preferred Manny Machado or Harper. Among more than 10,000 respondents, Harper won in a rout, 86 percent to 14.
Rest assured, team officials noticed. And Middleton, having staked his reputation on the successful pursuit of a franchise player, knew that striking out wasn’t an option, so much so that he flew across the country last Friday to have dinner with Harper and his wife, Kayla, in their hometown and make his best sales pitch.
"When he’s going good, he’s one of the more difficult players to get out in the game,” Kapler said in December. “And I love the way he plays. I think there’s so much to like about what Bryce Harper brings to the table: his play on the field and then also what he brings to the clubhouse environment.”
The Phillies could have walked away from Harper, just as they did with Machado last week, and hunted a different superstar in a future offseason (Anthony Rendon next winter? Mookie Betts or Mike Trout in 2020-21?) But the calculus changed on Feb. 7, when they traded top prospect Sixto Sanchez in a three-player deal for Realmuto, who is under team control for two more seasons.
With that, the Phillies moved the goal post on expectations for this season. Goodbye, rebuild. Farewell, incremental progress. Hello, contention. Welcome to being all-in.
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Harper isn’t the perfect player, but at 26, it’s possible that the six-time All-Star and 2015 NL MVP has not yet reached his peak. And he’s the superstar who was available to a team whose time is now and a billionaire owner who famously joked to USA Today in November that he was willing to get “a little bit stupid” about spending money.
In all, Middleton wound up dropping about $440 million. But by stretching Harper’s deal to 13 years, the Phillies kept the average annual value to $25.4 million, a figure that should allow them flexibility under the competitive-balance tax to make big moves in future offseasons.
Harper batted .249 and slugged .496 with a .393 on-base percentage and 34 homers in 159 games in what qualified by his standards as a down year last season for the Nationals. But he flourished after the All-Star break, batting .300 and slugging .538 with a .434 on-base percentage and 11 homers in 223 at-bats, and was worth 3.5 wins above replacement, according to Fangraphs. Over the past three seasons, since his MVP season of 2015, he has averaged 3.8 fWAR.
A left-handed hitter, Harper also will bring balance to a Phillies batting order that leans to the right. He batted in the No. 3 spot for most of his career (456 games) with the Nationals, but also frequently batted second (178 games) and fourth (146). Depending on where Kapler wants to slot him, the Phillies’ opening-day lineup could look like this:
2B Cesar Hernandez (S)
SS Segura (R)
RF Harper (L)
1B Hoskins (R)
C Realmuto (R)
LF McCutchen (R)
CF Odubel Herrera (L)
3B Maikel Franco (R)
The Phillies now have a glut of outfielders, too. Switch-hitting Roman Quinn appears to have a defined role because of his speed and defense in center field, but the additions of McCutchen and Harper seemingly force Nick Williams to the bench, too.
When the offseason began, the Phillies preferred Machado over Harper because of his combination of offense and stellar defense at third base. Team president Andy MacPhail, Klentak and assistant general manager Ned Rice each had a hand in drafting Machado with the Baltimore Orioles and tried to reacquire him in a trade last July. The Phillies hosted Machado on Dec. 20 at Citizens Bank Park and offered him a contract even before sitting down with Harper.
But the tide seemed to shift after a Jan. 12 meeting with Harper and agent Scott Boras in Las Vegas. And when Machado’s camp gave the Phillies a chance last week to match a 10-year, $300 million offer from the San Diego Padres, they passed and turned their attention exclusively to Harper, with Middleton taking the lead in negotiations with agent Scott Boras.
Club officials believe Harper is a better right fielder than the defensive metrics indicated last season. His selective plate approach fits with the offensive philosophy espoused by Kapler and hitting coach John Mallee.
“One of the things I found most fascinating about him last year was, even through the times of his struggles, he still worked an incredible at-bat,” Kapler said in December. “It wasn’t like rolling over to the second baseman on the first pitch when he was struggling, although that happened from time to time. But when he struggled, he still worked the pitcher; he still made the opposition uncomfortable. And sometimes he’d end that at-bat with a walk, which I think there’s a lot of value in that.”
Harper turned down a 10-year, $300 million extension offer from the Nationals at the end of last season, according to the Washington Post, effectively setting the bar for what he expected to receive in free agency. Boras pitched Harper as a “generational” and “iconic” player, one who could make a difference both on the field and at the box office.
“For an owner to know the rocket ship of economic opportunity is just blasting off because the player is just entering the prime of his career," Boras said in November, “you’re really talking about just a unique and rare opportunity for an owner.”
But “Harper’s bazaar” -- Boras’ nickname for the star’s market -- was slow to develop. The traditional big spenders — the New York Yankees, Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox — weren’t a consideration for Harper, and the Los Angeles Dodgers opted for a shorter-term deal with outfielder A.J. Pollock. Harper was most often linked to a handful of teams: the Phillies, Padres, Chicago White Sox, and San Francisco Giants.
Harper’s free agency, like Machado’s, dragged into spring training. When the Phillies opened their camp here, Klentak said he was pleased with the team’s sales pitch to both players but also tempered his optimism that the Phillies would land either by noting that, in free agency, “it takes two to tango."
At last, the Phillies can dance. They have reeled in Harper, and it’s a game-changing difference-maker.