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Phillies’ challenge in ‘next step’: Don’t waste prime years of their star core

MVP, Cy Young runner-up, an All-Star catcher, and no playoffs. The window is open for the Phillies, who must quickly upgrade the talent around their stars.

Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto is a three-time All-Star at 30, and Bryce Harper just won his second MVP award by age 29.
Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto is a three-time All-Star at 30, and Bryce Harper just won his second MVP award by age 29.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

Here’s what the Phillies owe Bryce Harper: $248 million.

That’s it.

The Phillies can plug a major-league roster that has more holes than a pool table, regrow an arid farm system, and morph back into a championship-caliber organization. Or not. As long as they keep depositing checks into Harper’s bank account through 2031, they will have fulfilled their obligation to the re-crowned National League MVP.

Raise your hand if that feels like enough.

Didn’t think so.

» READ MORE: Overrated? Underrated? Just consider Bryce Harper one of the best of his generation.

Owner John Middleton must want more, or else why would he have authorized paying out roughly $600 million in player salaries over the last three seasons? Dave Dombrowski, a two-time World Series-winning executive, came here last year to burnish his legacy, not build .500 teams. And Joe Girardi didn’t sign on to manage the Phillies because he craves family vacations in October.

Even Harper isn’t satisfied with simply securing the financial futures of his kids, grandkids, and great-grandkids. Upon becoming the 15th player ever to win multiple MVPs by age 29, he was struck less by the names in the club’s register — Jimmie Foxx, Stan Musial, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Johnny Bench, and Albert Pujols, among others — than by their jewelry collections.

“All those guys, they also have World Series [titles] as well,” Harper said. “That’s the next step; that’s the next goal.”

And so, in the afterglow of Harper’s achievement and with Zack Wheeler coming thisclose to taking home the Cy Young Award, it’s important to zoom out. The Phillies’ best players’ best years are whizzing by with nary a whiff of the postseason. The proverbial window of contention is wide open, yet there’s scarcely a breeze.

“I think we recognize that a lot of our core are in the primes of their careers, and this is a unique opportunity to leverage that,” general manager Sam Fuld said. “It’s not lost on us that we’re lucky to have these guys playing at a really high level.”

Harper, who turned 29 last month, was at the peak of his powers this year, especially after the All-Star break. Wheeler, 31, had a 2.82 ERA in 284⅓ innings over the last two seasons. J.T. Realmuto, 30, is a three-time All-Star catcher. Aaron Nola and Rhys Hoskins, both 28, are homegrown fixtures. All but Nola is under control through 2023 or beyond.

» READ MORE: All-Star, MVP ... Hall of Famer? Exploring Bryce Harper's case for Cooperstown.

But while the Phillies have a solid core, the roster’s midsection is Santa-level jiggly. Dombrowski intends to attack it with an ab-blaster. By his admission, they need a left fielder, a center fielder, and a closer. They also could use another late-inning reliever (or two), a starter, and an all-over infusion of depth.

And they need it all before any of their stars blow out the candles on another birthday cake.

The Phillies pursued free-agent center fielder Starling Marte, who agreed Friday night to a four-year, $78 million deal with the rival New York Mets. They sought a reunion with reliever Héctor Neris, who is closing in on a two-year contract with the Houston Astros.

Rest assured, the Phillies will make additions, perhaps even before Thursday’s expiration of the collective bargaining agreement and subsequent threat of a lockout. Even Harper realizes they can’t keep throwing money at their problems, that they must develop more homegrown players. But a farm system doesn’t sprout overnight — or even in one offseason.

Dombrowski must find creative solutions, or else compel Middleton to do something the Phillies have never done: push the payroll beyond the competitive-balance tax threshold, penalties be damned.

Regardless, Dombrowski should grasp the urgency. In 2013, he put together a Detroit Tigers team that featured Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, Torii Hunter, and Victor Martinez — and didn’t win the World Series. A year later, he swapped Fielder for Ian Kinsler, added J.D. Martinez and David Price, and still fell short.

But at least those teams won 93 and 90 games and went to the postseason. The Phillies, under the stewardship of Andy MacPhail and Matt Klentak, lacked the organizational infrastructure to contend when they flung $330 million at Harper. Three years later, they are 191-193, 29½ games worse than the three-time division champion Atlanta Braves.

» READ MORE: Bryce Harper, Zack Wheeler, and the Phillies’ flawed superstar formula | David Murphy

Surely, then, Dombrowski’s front office must adopt a carpe diem mentality.

“I guess you could say that, but I don’t think we’re that old of a team,” Dombrowski said. “We’re still 28, 29 in a lot of cases. Harper, you’ve got him for a long time; Realmuto, you’ve got four more years; Wheeler, you’ve got three more years. So you look at the core and when you have those guys here for an extended period of time and they’re such good players, it kind of leaves you not even really thinking about that.”

Los Angeles Angels general manager Perry Minasian feels similarly about his team.

The Angels are the West Coast Phillies, with Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon playing the roles of Harper and Realmuto, two-way sensation Shohei Ohtani starring en route to the American League MVP award, and the rest of the top-heavy roster badly lacking. Like the Phillies, the Angels derive little help from their farm system. And they haven’t made the playoffs — or won more than 85 games in a season — since 2014.

Asked at the recent general managers’ meetings if the Angels feel pressure to win while Trout is at his peak, Minasian said that time may be of the essence but it isn’t overly finite.

“We have some really quality players under contract for a long time,” Minasian said. “If you asked Mike Trout, does he expect to be productive in two years, three years, four years, I think I know the answer. There’s a lot made of the window and we need to do something in the next year, two years. I’m in a different mindset long-term. When you have special players, Mike being one of them, Anthony being another, I expect those guys to be productive more than just next year.”

» READ MORE: Bryce Harper, $330M man and NL MVP, has been worth every penny to the Phillies | Marcus Hayes

Fair enough. But there’s a difference between being productive and being the best hitter or pitcher in the league. Will Harper and Wheeler reach those heights again in 2022? And how much better must the rest of the team be to provide adequate support?

“Everybody knows what Dombo is going to do. He’s going to try to win,” Harper said. “He’s going to try to put the best team out there that he can. I’m looking forward to seeing what he does. I think from the top down, everybody wants to win.”

The Phillies don’t owe that to Harper as much as to themselves — and their playoff-starved fans — while Harper is still at his very best.