CLEARWATER, Fla. — Bryce Harper reached out to Kris Bryant the other day. But before anyone gets hysterical — or heaven forbid, runs out to get ‘BRYANT’ stitched onto the back of a crisp, new Phillies jersey — it was personal, not business.
“I texted him to tell him congrats on his twins. That’s about it,” Harper said Monday, referring to Bryant’s recent social media announcement that he and his wife are expecting twin sons this summer. “I haven’t talked to him about [free agency] at all. He’s going to make the best decision for his family, and you know, if that’s Philadelphia, that’s Philadelphia.”
Harper would love for it to be Philadelphia. The reigning National League MVP needs a wingman in the middle of the Phillies’ order, and who better than his childhood friend from back home in Las Vegas? They played together for one summer growing up. Harper used Bryant’s bat for a stretch of games last year. They’re close.
And Harper has never minded playing armchair general manager. He practically staged a “Re-Sign J.T.” campaign two years ago for catcher J.T. Realmuto. When he wants Phillies president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski to pursue a player, he isn’t shy about saying it.
But Harper stumped equally Monday for free-agent sluggers Nick Castellanos and Kyle Schwarber, noting that “there’s three guys out there that can really help us.” He declined to state a preference for one over the others, although he expressed confidence that the Phillies will sign one of them.
“Yeah, absolutely,” Harper said. “It’d definitely be a downer [if they didn’t].”
Especially because the luxury-tax threshold will rise to $230 million under the new collective bargaining agreement. That’s a $20 million increase from last season and the largest year-to-year hike since the current competitive-balance tax system went into effect in 2002.
The boosted threshold figures to benefit the teams that want to keep adding payroll. Harper noted the spending habits of Steve Cohen, the wealthiest owner in baseball, who has the New York Mets’ payroll cranked up to approximately $278 million.
“Mr. Cohen, he’s done a great job evolving his team and doing what he kind of wanted to do,” Harper said. “He’s putting his splash on the market, on baseball. It’s great for the players to have that. I’m not going to deny that.”
Nobody expects Phillies ownership, led by John Middleton, to mimic that behavior. Middleton has recently treated the tax threshold like a limbo stick, authorizing the front office to spend up to the limit but not go over unless the team was one move from being a World Series contender. Last year, the Phillies came within about $600,000 of the threshold.
Harper’s optimism stems from his trust in Middleton to take the same approach now. He developed a strong relationship with the owner and his wife during a 2019 free-agent recruiting process that resulted in Harper signing a 13-year, $330 million contract.
“The CBT is really something that affects our team,” Harper said. “And I think we will go all the way to $230 [million], as of now. I hope. So I think that’s really going to impact our team to go out there and get the guys that are the best available and that are smart and work for our team.”
Castellanos, 30, would require the forfeiture of a compensatory second-round draft pick after receiving a qualifying offer in November. Schwarber, 29, fits with the Phillies’ preference for a left-handed hitter and has a strong rapport with hitting coach Kevin Long, with whom he worked last year in Washington. The Phillies tried to sign Schwarber before the lockout, but he waited and now, with the designated hitter coming to the NL, his market is even more robust.
And then there’s Bryant, who figures to be the most expensive but is also the most versatile and accomplished with a Rookie of the Year, MVP, and four All-Star appearances by age 30. The Colorado Rockies reportedly have interest. So, too, do the San Francisco Giants.
“Any team in baseball would be lucky to have him,” Harper said. “I can’t stand here and say I don’t want Kris on my team, or Castellanos on my team, or Schwarber. I think all three are winners. They’ve proven that.
“Schwarber, of course, he won in Chicago, he did a great job for the Red Sox last year and the Nationals. He’s a winner as a player. KB can play anywhere — third base, first base, DH, left field. He’s a winner as well. He’s come up in big spots, big situations. And then Nicky, Casty, I really enjoy him as a player. He’s a good left fielder. He’d be a great middle-of-the-order bat for us.”
Harper was a one-man show for much of last season, especially in the second half. He batted .309 and slugged .615 with 42 doubles, 35 homers, 100 walks, and a .429 on-base percentage. He also started 72 consecutive games to finish the season, an impressive streak after he dealt with a cranky lower back, a bruised wrist after taking a fastball off the cheek, and other assorted injuries in the first half.
The Phillies emerged last week from the owners’ 99-day lockout of the players with multiple needs. They addressed the bullpen by doling out twin one-year, $6 million contracts to free-agent relievers Jeurys Familia and Brad Hand. They have agreed to a contract, pending a physical, with center fielder Odúbel Herrera.
Last, but hardly least, will be left field, the highest-profile addition. They have roughly $30 million to spend before reaching the luxury-tax threshold.
“There’s proven winners out there that can help us today,” Harper said. “And I think to be able to go out and get at least one of those guys is going to be really huge for us. We just have to put our faith in Dombo to do what he does.”