Bryce Harper was the only story that mattered a year ago as the Phillies opened spring training.
Oh, sure, Manny Machado was a free agent, too, but polling showed Philadelphia wanted Harper and in the end that’s the player owner John Middleton brought to Clearwater, Fla., on his private jet with the red P branded on its tail.
The details of the deal were shocking not because of the amount of money ($330 million), but because of the number of years. Some speculated beforehand that Harper would want an out clause such as the one Machado received from the San Diego Padres. Instead, Harper signed up for 13 seasons in Philadelphia, which means his career here is going to be defined by what he does in this decade.
His first season was fascinating on multiple levels. He was good but not great, hitting .260 with 36 doubles, 35 home runs, 114 RBIs, and an .892 OPS that ranked ninth among right fielders and 37th among all players. His defensive play far exceeded expectations, and his 13 assists tied for the most among National League outfielders.
The theater was riveting. The fans at Citizens Bank Park immediately fell in love with Harper. He played with the kind of intensity and passion that is always embraced around here and he mostly lived up to expectations even as the Phillies’ playoff drought extended to eight straight seasons, leading to the dismissal of manager Gabe Kapler after just two seasons.
The theatrics at Nationals Park were equally interesting and deeply disturbing. Harper immediately became a villain in his former home, enduring relentless boos during the Phillies’ first road trip of the season and classless taunts about his newborn son, Krew, during the team’s final road series.
Harper, of course, also watched from the visitors dugout as Washington clinched a playoff spot against the Phillies in late September before going on to win the city’s first World Series since 1924.
Ouch, ouch and triple ouch.
Now, it’s time for Harper 2.0. As good as he was last season, it’s not unreasonable to expect something even better in 2020.
Harper would be the first to tell you he did not choose the Phillies just for the money. He saw a team that he thought was on the rise and, if anything, the Nationals’ first World Series title should fuel his own desire to win his first championship.
He should also be in a good place mentally as he enters his second season with the Phillies. He did not have to deal with the stress of free agency and, unlike a year ago, he will get a full spring training with his teammates. Even though the Phillies underperformed last season, the chemistry among the players was good and Harper deserved a lot of the credit because he acted like a teammate and not a superstar.
But the biggest reason we can expect more from Harper in 2020 is his age. He turned 27 in October, and that likely means he is about to enter his prime even though he has already logged eight big-league seasons.
Harper has 219 home runs, and only 12 other players in history either reached or exceeded that number before age 27. The list: Alex Rodriguez, Jimmie Foxx, Eddie Mathews, Albert Pujols, Mickey Mantle, Frank Robinson, Mel Ott, Ken Griffey Jr., Mike Trout, Orlando Cepeda, Andruw Jones, and Hank Aaron.
Eight of those players are in the Hall of Fame, and Pujols and Trout are sure to join them. A-Rod would have also if not for his PED addiction.
Excluding Cepeda, who was injured during most of his age-27 season, the 11 other players combined to hit .304 with an average of 37 home runs and 110 RBIs at age 27. Nine of the 11 hit at least 30 home runs, and eight of the 11 drove in at least 100 runs.
Forty homers and 120 RBIs seem within the realm of possibility for Harper.
Although there are a few exceptions — Jones is among them — players of Harper’s pedigree tend to keep getting better or at least continue to play at an elite level into their early 30s.
A-Rod (40.7), Aaron (37.4), Foxx (36), Griffey (34.7), Pujols (34.6), Mathews (32), and Mantle (32) all averaged more than 30 homers per season from age 27 through 33, and Robinson averaged 29.9. Trout, at 27, hit a career-high 45 homers last season despite playing in only 134 games, the second-lowest total of his career.
There will come a time during Harper’s 13-year contract when his skills will diminish and his contract, like Pujols’ with the Angels, will become an albatross for the Phillies. But that day is not coming in 2020.