When Bryce Harper signed for more money than any free agent had ever received, he made a point of stretching out the contract to 13 years for the purpose of helping his new team maintain financial flexibility to add other star players in future offseasons.
It’s fair, then, to wonder how the $330 million man is feeling about the Phillies’ intention to lower the payroll in 2021 — and perhaps not re-sign J.T. Realmuto, his close friend and favorite player.
But if Harper has concerns over managing partner John Middleton’s commitment to keep pushing for the winning season and playoff berth that have eluded the Phillies since 2011, his agent believes they should be alleviated now that the team has hired Dave Dombrowski to run baseball operations.
“In fairness to what Bryce and John talked about when he came to Philadelphia, there was an owner committed to winning and an owner pursuing winning,” Scott Boras said Tuesday night. “I don’t think you play the game of hiring a general manager who is known for World Series hopscotch — because everywhere he goes, he’s there to compete and win and has done so — without an intention and focus of winning today.”
Boras touched on a number of topics in a virtual session with reporters that substituted for his annual winter meetings news conference. As it pertained to the Phillies, who have several of his clients on the 40-man roster (Harper, Rhys Hoskins, Alec Bohm, Vince Velasquez), Boras expressed confidence that Middleton will continue to aggressively pursue postseason contention.
Over the last few years, agents have found a willing bidder in Middleton.
In 2018, the Phillies signed free-agent pitcher Jake Arrieta, also part of Boras’ stable, to a three-year, $75 million contract. They won the Harper sweepstakes a year later. Including non-Boras clients Andrew McCutchen, David Robertson, Zack Wheeler, and Didi Gregorius, the Phillies have spent nearly $700 million in free agency over the last three years. This year, the payroll nearly reached the $208 million luxury-tax threshold.
But the Phillies, like many teams, took a revenue hit because of COVID-19. They have gotten a late start on this offseason, too. Their protracted search to replace demoted general manager Matt Klentak left many rival teams and agents wondering about their offseason direction. Dombrowski wasn’t hired to a four-year contract until last Friday.
But Boras said he had “excellent communication” with Middleton and interim GM Ned Rice, adding that the Phillies “have been in contact with us on numerous occasions about interest level in players we represent.”
It’s likely that one such player is Jackie Bradley Jr. The free-agent center fielder reportedly has drawn interest from the Phillies and Cubs, which makes sense given Bradley played for Dombrowski and teamed with Chicago manager David Ross and assistant GM Craig Breslow with the Red Sox.
Although the Phillies have myriad needs (bullpen, catcher, shortstop), they could look to upgrade center field, too. Bradley, 30, outpaced his usual numbers in the shortened 2020 season, batting .283 with an .814 OPS. He’s a .239 career hitter with a .732 OPS in eight seasons with Boston.
But while Bradley isn’t much of an offensive upgrade over Adam Haseley and Roman Quinn, he’s an elite defender. He led the majors last season in outs above average, recording seven more than the average center fielder, according to Statcast. The Phillies had the fourth-worst overall outfield defense last year, based on defensive runs saved.
“JBJ’s kind of the PBJ of the major leagues. He’s sweet, smooth, and he spreads it all over and covers it well,” said Boras, employing one of his characteristic metaphors. “What Jackie does in a defensive runs-saved environment has been quite popular. He has received a lot of attention, and we expect something very grand for him going forward.”
Bradley made $11 million last season. He’s the second-best center fielder on the free-agent market after George Springer.
But if the Phillies are going to splurge for anyone in free agency, it might be Realmuto. As popular as he is among fans, he’s even more coveted by Harper, who has lobbed loudly for the Phillies to retain the All-Star catcher.
Just in case they come up short, Girardi has thought about the Phillies’ need to perhaps smooth things over with their best player.
“I’ll sit down and have discussions with him, and I’m sure Dave will probably have discussions with Bryce about, ‘Look, we want to win just as bad as you do. Trust us,’” Girardi said. “I’ve been with teammates that I loved being teammate with and the next year they’re not there and it’s a little bit difficult. I think you always worry about how players are going to handle things when things maybe don’t go exactly the way they want.”