Bryce Harper did not know Matt Moore nine years ago, but he certainly knew of him. Everyone, Harper said, knew about Moore.
“He was one of the guys,” Harper said.
But Moore wasn’t just one of the guys. He was the guy. Two publications — MLB.com and Baseball Prospectus — ranked Moore as the No. 1 prospect in baseball before the 2012 season. He was listed higher than Harper (No. 2), Mike Trout (No. 3), Manny Machado (No. 6), Gerrit Cole (No. 11), and Francisco Lindor (No. 32).
Harper, Trout, Machado, Cole, and Lindor are now five of baseball’s biggest stars. They have combined for four MVPs, 22 All-Star nods, and four $300 million contracts.
But in February 2012, they all trailed Moore.
Moore, returning to the majors with the Phillies this year after a season in Japan as he tries to right his career, was then a 23-year-old left-handed pitcher who had thrown a no-hitter at double A, struck out 200 batters in consecutive minor-league seasons, and fired a fastball that could reach triple digits.
Moore debuted in the majors the previous September, made one start, and then started two of Tampa Bay’s playoff games. Not only was Moore a can’t-miss prospect, but he was already a proven major leaguer.
It was easy to see why he was the guy.
“If I’m not mistaken he was an eighth-round pick,” said Joe Girardi, who managed the Yankees against Tampa Bay in Moore’s first major-league start. “And I’m thinking, ‘How do you get an eighth-round pick throwing 100 mph with a good curveball?’ That’s the kind of thing. He signed when he was young and he developed nicely. No, I haven’t forgotten about who Matt Moore was and who he is today. He gave us fits.”
Moore won his first playoff game, struck out 175 batters in his first full season, and was an All-Star in his second year. The Rays, confident in Moore, signed him before the 2012 season to an eight-year contract worth $39.75 million. His career was meeting the expectations of being baseball’s premier prospect.
But then an elbow injury in April 2014 required Tommy John surgery, keeping Moore out of the majors for 15 months. He made six starts in 2015, struggled, and was sent back to the minor leagues.
Tampa Bay traded Moore during the 2016 season to San Francisco, where he pitched eight innings in a playoff game, but then led the National League in 2017 in losses and earned runs. The Giants then traded him to Texas and he made 12 starts in 2018 before being dropped into the bullpen for another disappointing season.
“You just keep showing up and keep grinding at it. Not that baseball is a grind compared to other things you could be doing in life, but there’s a lot of disappointment,” Moore said. “There’s the bright spots that help you forget about the disappointment. But in general, this is what I do. It would be like if I was a columnist and I got fired from a newspaper, I’m going to find another newspaper who wants me to write for them. I’m going to try and get better at the things I’ve been criticized for and try to become valuable to someone.”
The contract Moore signed when he was baseball’s No. 1 prospect lapsed after the 2018 season, making him a free agent the same offseason that Harper scored a $330 million contract, Machado signed for $300 million, and Trout inked a $430 million extension. Cole signed the next offseason for $324 million and Lindor is nearing a mega-contract.
As the names on that prospect list cashed in, Moore signed with the Tigers for $2.5 million and had to compete in spring training for a spot in the starting rotation.
He earned the job, started Detroit’s fourth game of the season, and pitched seven shutout innings in his Tigers debut. It was a long journey, but Moore seemed to be planting the seeds of a comeback.
And then came another disappointment. His season with Detroit ended with a knee injury while fielding a bunt in his second start.
“It definitely is probably more of a kick in the gut because it was something that you didn’t really think was going to pop up,” Moore said. “You can understand shoulder and elbow stuff or getting hit with the ball or rolling an ankle, that kind of stuff. When something like that kind of happened, I don’t know. I’m kind of a half-full kind of guy. I looked at it like I’m 30 years old. It was just a meniscus type thing. I’m lucky it’s not my shoulder. I’m lucky it’s not my elbow. Because those are significant injuries and they’re going to take time to heal. So I try to keep my head screwed on tight.”
Moore’s major-league options were slim, but he recovered from his knee injury and wanted to prove himself. So he signed to play in Japan, where he lived for four years as a child when his father was in the Air Force.
Moore made 15 starts last summer for the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks, posting a 2.65 ERA with 10.4 strikeouts per nine innings in the country’s top league. Softbank won the Japan Series with a four-game sweep of the Yomiuri Giants and Moore logged seven scoreless innings in Game 3.
His success in Japan was enough for the Phillies to bring him back to the major leagues and push him into their starting rotation. Harper said he was excited when he heard the Phillies signed Moore to a one-year deal worth $3 million.
The Phillies have not had a left-handed starter at the beginning of a season since Cole Hamels.
“We need him,” Harper said. “We need him to be the guy for us and be the left-handed starter that we know he can be. He’s kind of on that comeback tour of ‘Hey, I have something to prove. I know I can do this and I know I can do this at a high level.’ I’m looking forward to what he can do.”
Moore is surrounded this spring by players who trailed behind him nine years ago. Harper is in right field, Zack Wheeler (No. 28 prospect in 2012) is in the rotation, Jean Segura (No. 55) is at second base, and Christian Bethancourt (No. 91) is one of the catchers in camp.
It didn’t seem like a big deal, Moore said, to be the top prospect in baseball, and the prospect industry did not feel as popular as it does now. In five years, he went from an eighth-round pick out of high school to the No. 1 prospect in baseball. It all happened fast, Moore said.
“I don’t know if it was just me that thought like that, but I was still in the minor leagues,” Moore said. “It didn’t really matter. My eyes were basically focused on the things I needed to work on to get there.”
Moore is no longer touching 100 mph and he’s not playing with the security of an eight-year contract. He’s 31 years old with a young family, which provided perspective as he faced adversity. Girardi said the pitcher has a sense of calmness about him, always seeming to be in control.
The pitcher has looked promising this spring. He has been efficient by pounding the strike zone and has allowed just three earned runs in his first 12 innings.
Moore throws four pitches — a fastball, curveball, changeup, and cutter — and has thrown them all consistently. His comeback tour will start with him in the back of the rotation and there’s optimism that he can provide more than just a veteran presence.
After a year away, Moore pitched his way back to the majors. The former No. 1 prospect earned himself another chance to prove himself. And he can simply look to right field to see the player who once rivaled him in the rankings. They know each other now.
“I’m happy to be Bryce’s teammate,” Moore said. “That’s for sure.”