Bryce Harper was home in Las Vegas this winter but could not stop thinking about what was going on in Philadelphia. Or perhaps it was what wasn’t going on in Philadelphia.
The Phillies reassigned their general manager after another playoff-less season, didn’t seem to be in a hurry to hire a new one, and appeared committed to reducing payroll in a slow offseason after playing 30 home games without fans.
It had been just 21 months since Harper flew to Clearwater, Fla., hugged the Phillie Phanatic, and said he wanted to ride a “freakin’ boat” down Broad Street. Everything was perfect in the spring of 2019, but this winter the Phillies seemed to be drifting off course.
They certainly did not appear to be steering their boat toward a parade through town.
“I had no idea what was going on,” Harper said. “When we were sitting there kind of figuring out what we wanted to do as an organization, how we wanted to approach this offseason, what was going on, payroll, and things like that. This was my sense of ‘Man, what do we have going on?’ ”
“Of course when you get halfway through the offseason and there’s not really much going on, you’re kind of sitting there worrying about what our identity as a team is going to be.”
But Harper said he never lost trust in John Middleton, the team’s managing partner. You don’t hire Joe Girardi, Harper said, and then tell him a year later, “Hey, we’re not going to do anything.”
So Harper, just like everyone in Philadelphia, waited to see the Phillies’ plan unfold.
“I was wondering what we were going to do,” Harper said.
A few weeks later, Harper finally saw what the team had going on. His trust in Middleton was rewarded in mid-December when the Phillies hired Dave Dombrowski - a two-time World Series champion - as president of baseball operations. A week later, they named Sam Fuld as the new GM.
The Phillies were back on course again.
“Two moves where I thought, ‘Wow, here we go. This is the start of our offseason,” Harper said. “... You don’t really bring in Dombrowski unless it’s a win-now kind of move.”
“I think bringing him in was refueling. You know how Dombrowski is and how he works. He wants to win. He was able to do that in Detroit. He was able to do that when he was with Boston. When he came in, it was like, ‘Whoa. Here we go. This is it. This is what we’re going to do. This is how we’re going to do it.’ He made his first move. He made his second move. He made his third move. And it kind of led into what we’re doing right now. I love Sam. I love the way he approaches his days. I love the way he approaches players as well. I think we have a great mix of people working for us right now. We’re really excited as a locker room and as a clubhouse. I’m looking forward to it.”
In less than 10 weeks under Dombrowski, the Phillies spent the second-most money on free agents as they committed $161.8 million on seven players. They brought back J.T. Realmuto and Didi Gregorius, added to the starting rotation, rebuilt the bullpen, and spent $3.5 million on bench player Brad Miller. So much for trimming payroll.
Everything - from Harper’s outlook to the team’s spending habits - seemed to change once Dombrowksi was hired. But reaching the playoffs, even with a new captain steering the boat, remains a challenge. Fangraphs projects that four of five teams in the National League East will finish .500 or better. The Phillies (81 projected wins) are pegged to finish in fourth place and eight games back of the second wild card.
The Braves have won three straight division titles, the Nationals were World Champions in 2019, the Mets have a new owner who won the offseason, and the Marlins won a playoff series last year. The NL East is the only division in baseball where every team tried to build this winter for October.
“I think this is the best division in baseball. I don’t think that’s even a question,” Harper said. “We have five teams in this division that are really good. They have really good pitching, really good young pitching, really good bullpens, and good lineups. I think this is going to be a juggernaut of a division.”
Yet as spring training begins, it’s possible to chart a plan that ends with the Phillies reaching the postseason for the first time since 2011. It feels much less lofty than it did in early December when Harper - and nearly everyone else - wondered what exactly was going on in Philadelphia.
The Phillies no longer seem to be drifting without a plan. The boat might not yet be on Broad Street, but it’s not a pipe dream anymore to believe it’s pointing that way. Everything seemed to change when the Phillies hired Dombrowski.
“I hate being home for Halloween, I can tell you that,” Harper said of reaching the postseason. “I think the town needs it. The city of Philadelphia deserves it and they need it. We’re a team that can hopefully do that for them and give that to them. They deserve to be in the stands in October and I know they’re willing to do that. Everybody sets goals, but it all starts down here right now. We need to figure who we are and what we can do and how we can do it. Take it one month at a time and get it going.”