CLEARWATER, Fla. — Bryce Harper wants to recruit Mike Trout to play someday for the Phillies. The Angels want Harper to mind his own business. And Major League Baseball wants to be sure Harper isn’t tampering.
Just another day in the Spring of Bryce.
After hitting a home run against new teammate Jerad Eickhoff in a simulated game here Wednesday, Harper stood by his comments from one day earlier about trying to persuade Trout to sign with the Phillies once he becomes a free agent after the 2020 season.
“If I didn’t mean it,” Harper said, “I wouldn’t have said it.”
MLB knows exactly what Harper said Tuesday in a mid-game interview with WIP-FM (94.1), the Phillies’ flagship radio station. The Angels contacted the league over this remark, in particular: “If you don’t think I’m not going to call Mike Trout to come to Philly in 2020, you’re crazy.”
The commissioner’s office was in touch with both the Phillies and the Angels about the matter. Harper said he hasn’t heard directly from MLB but implied that Phillies officials had spoken with him.
“They talked to me a little bit,” Harper said. “Not MLB or anything like that. But I guess when that time comes and guys are free agents, we’ll see what happens. But I don’t know.”
Harper’s comments would seem to violate MLB Rule 3(k), which states in part that “there shall be no negotiations or dealings respecting employment, either present or prospective, between any player, coach or manager and any major- or minor-league club other than the club with which the player is under contract.”
Last Saturday, during his introductory news conference after signing a record 13-year, $330 million contract with the Phillies, Harper alluded to recruiting Trout in the 2020-21 offseason. But he stopped short of using Trout’s name.
There is precedent for MLB’s cracking down on potential tampering. David Ortiz was issued a warning letter in July 2016 after publicly lobbying the Red Sox to sign Blue Jays slugger Edwin Encarnacion, who was due to become a free agent in the offseason. Last year, Aaron Judge received a similar wrist slap for acknowledging that he had told then-Orioles star Manny Machado he “would look pretty good in [Yankees] pinstripes.”
It’s unclear whether Harper will also get a warning letter. The commissioner’s office has the authority to fine Harper, although his mention of “2020” — at which point Trout could be a free agent and no longer off limits to being wooed by a player on another team — might spare him.
Trout and Harper have been acquainted since they played together in the Arizona Fall League in 2011. When Harper was considering signing with the Phillies, he spoke with Trout, a Millville, N.J., native and ardent Eagles fan and season-ticket holder. Those conversations didn’t qualify as tampering because Harper was a free agent.
Harper has verged on tampering before. In 2012, he tweeted a sales pitch to Giancarlo Stanton about teaming up with him in Washington.
“You can always play for the Nats!” Harper wrote. “We will take you anytime! Get some red, white and blue in your life!”
Stanton’s humorous response: “Dang bro, if only my last name backwards wasn’t NotNats!”
Word of Harper’s comments reached Trout at the Angels’ camp in Arizona.
“Obviously, I saw it,” Trout said. “He’s excited. He’s excited about his team. I have no control over what he says.”
Harper has other things to worry about, too, notably getting ready for a season opener that is only three weeks away. He’s scheduled for his first Grapefruit League game action Saturday, when he’s expected to get two at-bats as the Phillies’ designated hitter against the Blue Jays at Spectrum Field. At that point, the Phillies will have 17 spring-training games remaining.
“If I’m at 40-45 [at-bats], that’s huge for me,” Harper said. “If I’m under that, it’s OK. But it’s trying to see pitches, trying to see as many at-bats as I can. Being able to go to the minor-league side has helped me the past couple years, just getting a little more at-bats seeing live arms.”
The Phillies would appear to have the financial flexibility to pursue Trout after next season. They have only about $77 million committed to six players beyond 2020. Harper’s annual salary of $25.4 million shouldn’t prohibit them from signing another player for more than $25 million annually.
But the Angels will surely make a push to keep Trout from ever reaching free agency, with owner Arte Moreno expressing a desire to sign him to a contract extension. Trout is the best player in baseball, but the Angels haven’t made the playoffs since 2014 or had a winning season since 2015.
“There is a rule against tampering for a reason. There has been for a long time,” Angels manager Brad Ausmus told reporters Wednesday. “I don’t know if it’s a bigger deal or not [now]. It’s reported more because of social media, but I don’t know that it’s any bigger of a deal. It’s always been a big deal.”
Harper doesn’t seem to think so.