CLEARWATER, Fla. — After the Phillies came off the practice fields here Tuesday, Bryce Harper spoke with owner John Middleton and the front office about the state of the roster.
“We just talked about everything that was going on,” Harper said. “I was just letting them know how I feel.”
Sure enough, shortly after arriving in the clubhouse Wednesday morning, Harper heard the news: the Phillies were in agreement on a four-year contract with free-agent slugger Kyle Schwarber.
Schwarber’s deal, confirmed by a major league source after being reported first by NBC Sports Philadelphia, will reportedly be worth $79 million once it’s finalized. Phillies officials were unable to comment on the 29-year-old left fielder because he must pass a physical.
But that didn’t stop Harper from weighing in. A few days earlier, he stood in front of his locker and stumped for three players: Nick Castellanos, Schwarber, or Kris Bryant, his friend from childhood in Las Vegas. The Phillies were always confident they would get one of them, according to a source. It was a matter of which one.
They went with Schwarber, their top target before the lockout, for three reasons: He bats from the left side, unlike Bryant and Castellanos; he wasn’t tethered to draft-pick compensation, unlike Castellanos and Michael Conforto; he was a better payroll fit below the $230 million luxury-tax threshold than Bryant, who was thought to prefer the West Coast and reportedly agreed Wednesday evening to a seven-year, $182 million deal with the Colorado Rockies.
Oh, and there’s another thing about Schwarber that was appealing.
“He’s a proven winner,” Harper said. “From the Cubs to the Red Sox, he was with the Nationals, he made it to the playoffs with the Red Sox. Been around a lot of great teams. Good fan bases. I think being in the city of Philadelphia, being on this team, he’s going to fit right in. He’s going to fit into what we want to do and our plan.”
About that plan. Schwarber’s best fit — given his Paul Bunyan strength, light-tower power, and defensive shortcomings — is as a designated hitter. But the Phillies expect he will be their primary left fielder, giving them a below-average defender at almost every position.
The strategy, which didn’t work out last year, will be to outhit their deficiencies in the field. Schwarber should help in that regard. He has at least 25 home runs in each of the last four full seasons. He’s also disciplined, with a selective approach at the plate.
“Just the dynamic of his game is going to help us a lot,” Harper said. “I think he’s going to thrive in our ballpark as well. He’s got strengths from left-field foul pole to right-field foul pole. I think he’s going to do very well for us.”
And although the Phillies landed on Schwarber in their stated pursuit of a middle-of-the-order bat, he may be their best leadoff option, a role that he thrived in last season in Washington.
The Phillies lack an obvious candidate to lead off. A year ago, they used 11 leadoff hitters who combined for a .302 on-base percentage, worst in the National League and second-worst in baseball after the Texas Rangers (.280).
Schwarber has a .343 career on-base percentage, including a .385 mark in 27 games last year. His move to the leadoff spot with the Nationals coincided with a power binge in which he hit 15 homers in a 17-game span.
“It was something like I’ve never seen before in baseball,” said new Phillies reliever Brad Hand, Schwarber’s teammate in Washington. “It’s just not that he was hot. It was just, every ball he was hitting was going out of the park, too. We almost got to the point where we were expecting it. It was like, ‘Oh, Schwarber’s up? He’s going to hit a homer.’ It was special to watch, for sure.”
The Phillies may have signed Schwarber sooner. They were in talks with his representatives at the end of November but couldn’t reach an agreement before the owners locked out the players on Dec. 1. With the DH coming to the NL, it’s possible Schwarber wanted to wait and see what his market looked like after the lockout.
Hitting coach Kevin Long further tipped the Phillies’ hand in a November interview with MLB Network. Asked if Schwarber would be a good fit, Long pressed his index finger to his lips and shushed the camera.
Long would know. As the Nationals hitting coach last year, he helped Schwarber rebound after batting .188 and striking out in 29.5% of his plate appearances in 2020 for the Cubs, who didn’t tender him a contract after the season. The Nationals signed Schwarber to a one-year, $10 million deal, and Long went to his home near Tampa for a few sessions in the batting cage.
To hear Long tell it, they worked on getting Schwarber back to the lower batting stance that he used in college and the minor leagues after agreeing that he’d become too upright over the years in Chicago. It enabled him to reach pitches at the bottom of the strike zone and stay behind the ball longer.
Schwarber hit 25 homers in 303 plate appearances with the Nats, then got traded to Boston and hit .291 with seven homers in 168 plate appearances. In seven seasons overall, he has 153 homers and an .836 OPS. He won the World Series with the Cubs in 2016 and has reached the playoffs in all but one year of his career.
“I know the fans want us to be a winning team and this organization wants us to be a winning team, so being able to add somebody like that is going to help us that much more,” Harper said. “Hopefully we’re not done and we can go out and get another guy.”
In all likelihood, Schwarber was the Phillies’ big-ticket item. Once his deal is finalized, the Phillies’ payroll for luxury-tax purposes will be roughly $220 million, $10 million short of the 2022 tax threshold in the new collective bargaining agreement.
There may still be other moves around the edges of the roster. Another bench bat, perhaps. Maybe a depth starter.
“This was a huge void for us,” Harper said. “He gives us a huge opportunity to fill that void out in left field and a huge opportunity to get that much better.”