MIAMI -- The season was over for all of 15 minutes, but Bryce Harper was already on to 2022, thinking of the possibility of the designated hitter coming to the National League and which free agents might be worth pursuing and who will pitch the ninth inning next year.
“My wheels are kind of turning,” Harper said here Sunday night after a 5-4 loss to the Miami Marlins left the Phillies with an 82-80 record for posterity. “That’s why I’m blabbering a little bit. My wheels turn because I just want to be better.”
Three years into his 13-year contract, the Phillies still haven’t made the playoffs. The longest postseason drought in the league reached 10 years last week even though the Phillies’ payroll exceeded $200 million for luxury-tax purposes and they may have the NL MVP (Harper) and Cy Young Award winner (Zack Wheeler) on the roster.
It should be enough to make a superstar who turns 29 in two weeks wonder if his prime years are being wasted.
But Harper, who can play armchair general manager with the best of us, isn’t calling for Phillies owner John Middleton to spend more “stupid money” this winter nor is he encouraging president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski to put a full-court press on every big-name free agent in a class that will include San Francisco Giants slugger Kris Bryant, Harper’s close friend from back home in Las Vegas.
Instead, Harper’s first thoughts at the end of a season in which he put up numbers matched only by Babe Ruth, Stan Musial, and Barry Bonds was to challenge the youngest of his teammates to take a step forward next year.
“We can’t just keep going out and buying and buying and buying,” Harper said. “We need homegrown talent. When you look at teams that have homegrown talent, those are the teams that have success. I think as a whole we need our minor leagues to be better. We need guys to come up from the minor leagues and have success, not to have to go up and down. Guys that can play every single day.”
Harper singled out third baseman Alec Bohm, last year’s runner-up for Rookie of the Year who wound up back in triple A in August. He pointed to outfielder Matt Vierling, a former fifth-round draft pick who was a pleasant surprise as a platoon player down the stretch. And Harper pointed to top prospect Bryson Stott, the 23-year-old shortstop who comes over to Harper’s house in the offseason to watch Ohio State football, to graduate to the big leagues.
But Harper also knows that the Phillies’ farm system lags behind most others in baseball. The Phillies haven’t drafted well under multiple front-office regimes, and Dombrowski is in the process of overhauling a farm system that hasn’t developed an impact player since Rhys Hoskins came to the big leagues in 2017. Recent first-round draft picks Mickey Moniak and Adam Haseley have stalled at triple A, while other top prospects such as Scott Kingery flamed out.
Fixing a farm system can take years. With Harper and Wheeler and star catcher J.T. Realmuto and Aaron Nola in their primes, the Phillies don’t have that kind of time.
“We’re a little behind in the minor leagues right now,” Harper said. “I know that. I think our fans and everybody else knows that. I think it’ll line up if certain guys step up, right? If Bryson Stott is here next year, he needs to come up and do his job. Bohmer, same thing. Bohmer needs to figure out this offseason what he wants to be and how he wants to do it. We need him to be a big piece of this club next year as our starting third baseman. I thought Vierling did an incredible job coming up.
“If these guys step up and do their job, then I think we’re going to be OK.”
Harper started his 72nd consecutive game in the season finale against the Marlins. He capped his MVP-worthy season with a one-out walk in the third inning, marking his 100th of the season. Of all the numbers that he accumulated in putting the flawed Phillies on his back after the All-Star break, this may have been the most impressive: Harper is the fourth outfielder ever with 100 runs, 100 walks, 40 doubles, and 35 homers in a season, joining Ruth in 1921 and 1923, Musial in 1949, and Bonds in 1998.
Clearly, though, Harper needs help. The Phillies have potential holes in left and center field. They need to upgrade shortstop or bank on a bounceback season from Didi Gregorius after the worst year of his career. They must improve the NL’s worst defense. And they have to rebuild the back end of a bullpen that could lose Ian Kennedy, Archie Bradley, and mainstay Héctor Neris in free agency.
Before any of that, though, the Phillies will make changes to manager Joe Girardi’s staff. They fired infield coach Juan Castro and hitting coach Joe Dillon, a Harper favorite, before the season finale.
“I don’t think you can pinpoint one thing that needs to get better. I think it all needs to get better,” Harper said. “We’ve seen that all year long. ... I know [Dombrowski] wants to win. I know we have the right guy leading us up top to make that happen. I trust in him.”
But it’s clear now, if it wasn’t before, that the Phillies’ rebuilding project wasn’t close to being complete in 2019 when Harper signed up for $330 million. The result is a top-heavy roster and not enough major-league-ready talent down below to fill out the rest of the club.
“Thinking about it, I’ve been here for three years and not being able to make the playoffs, you sit here and think, ‘What’s going on? Why are we not playing better?’” Harper said. “I think that’s mentality, that’s wanting it. We just need to get better in every aspect that we play.
“We need some dogs. We need some guys that can come in every single day and play, play hard, play physical, want to play every single day. We can’t just keep going and pulling guys and spending all this money on free agency. You need to have a mold of a team with guys that are making minimum [salary], guys that are not on crazy two-year, three-year deals that are making a substantial amount of money.”
Harper could’ve gone on all night, but it’s a long way to Opening Day. And it’s clear the Phillies can’t waste time getting to work.