In his first meeting with Phillies officials, nearly 21 months ago in Las Vegas, Bryce Harper took an interest in everything, from the timeline of the team’s rebuilding project to the culture of the organization and the status of the farm system.
It wasn’t a surprise, then, after the Phillies' season ended Sunday with a 5-0 whimper in Game 60 against the Tampa Bay Rays — after a seven-day collapse of epic proportions, even by the standards of the franchise with the most losses in North American pro sports — that Harper had thoughts on not only how a team with a $207.5 million payroll missed the playoffs in a field that included more than half the league but also how to fix it.
Call it the Harper Plan, and it has three steps:
Infuse a historically bad bullpen with more young, homegrown relievers.
Build up pitching depth.
Harper spoke assertively and passionately about those subjects on a Zoom call with reporters after the Phillies, who had a nearly 75% chance of making the playoffs last Monday, staggered to their seventh loss in eight games and extended their playoff drought to nine years, the second-longest active streak in baseball after the Seattle Mariners.
As for who should carry out those plans — general manager Matt Klentak, who hasn’t presided over a winning season in his five years on the job, or somebody new — Harper, perhaps tellingly, turned deferential.
“I mean, I’m not an owner,” the rightfielder said. “I’m glad I don’t have to make those decisions.”
But Harper is a $330 million superstar, and his opinions do carry weight with managing partner John Middleton. And Harper is willing to go to the mattresses to persuade Middleton to keep Realmuto, who will be eligible for free agency five days after the end of the World Series.
“J.T. Realmuto needs to be our catcher next year. Plain and simple," Harper said. “He’s the best catcher in baseball. He’s the best hitting catcher in baseball. Our guys love to throw to him. Anybody that’s the best at their position — hitting and fielding — needs to be signed, and that is J.T. Realmuto. I don’t think that should even be a question."
And just in case Middleton didn’t get the message, Harper painted an even clearer picture.
“There’s going to be two teams or three teams in the NL East who are going to go after that guy," he said. “And if that happens, that’s going to be tough to swallow for us."
OK, but Realmuto will seek a contract that beats Joe Mauer’s $23 million annual salary from 2010 to 2018, a record for catchers. And indications are that he doesn’t want to just clear that bar. He wants to obliterate it.
Given that the Phillies have other glaring needs — this is the part where we mention a historically bad bullpen that finished with a 7.06 ERA — can the Phillies really keep Realmuto and still address the rest of the roster?
Harper, GM hat still affixed to his head, believes they can, if only because signing free-agent relievers is more random than a dice roll. Look at David Robertson, as safe a bet as possible two years ago given his history of performance and durability. But Robertson made seven appearances for the Phillies last season before blowing out his elbow. He hasn’t pitched since.
“I think the bullpen is made from within,” Harper said. “Not all teams go out and spend a million, bajillion dollars on bullpens. You can’t do it. You have to be able to rely on the guys in your organization to get the job done.”
Harper was encouraged, then, by rookie relievers JoJo Romero and Connor Brogdon. The former allowed three earned runs and struck out 10 batters in his first 9⅓ innings before getting roughed up in his last two outings; the latter overcame a rough start to his big-league career and finished with 14 strikeouts in 8⅔ scoreless innings.
There needs to be more where they came from to fix the bullpen. The Phillies must also be better at identifying potential in pitchers who are cast aside by other teams. Nobody Dumpster dives better than the Rays, who had the best record in the American League and were 12 games better than the Phillies despite scoring fewer runs, hitting fewer home runs, and posting a lower OPS.
“Pitching wins championships. Development wins championships,” Harper said. “You have to be able to build from within. You have to be able to rely on the guys in your organization to get you to where you need to be.”
Klentak, whose contract runs through 2022, might be judged on whether the Phillies have done enough of that. The payroll during his five seasons rose from $103.1 million for luxury-tax purposes in 2016 to $119.2 million in 2018, and $192.1 million last year. Based on calculations at Cot’s Baseball Contracts, the Phillies will come in at $207.6 million this year, roughly $400,000 below the luxury-tax threshold and the fifth-highest payroll in baseball.
Middleton surely must be wondering why $208 million didn’t get the Phillies into the top half of the league. The answer might be that the roster was top-heavy, with not enough good players at the other end of the salary scale.
The Phillies lacked the organizational depth to adequately stock their alternate site with players who could fill in when injuries struck. Other clubs, such as the Atlanta Braves and Miami Marlins, were better prepared for that inevitability.
“People are going to get hurt, people are going to get hit by COVID, and it’s the teams that were able to get by that and take the opportunity to get better that are [in the playoffs] right now," Harper said. “They were able to get through it and win games and we weren’t.”
The Phillies must let that reality sink in. And then they must address it.