Bryce Harper was flown from his home in Las Vegas on John Middleton’s private jet with the red ‘P’ on its tail and as soon as he landed in Clearwater, Fla., the Phillies’ expectations for the 2019 season took off. The pursuit of Harper and/or Manny Machado was the never-ending story of the offseason and, finally, with spring training in full swing, the Phillies had their man.
All it cost Middleton was $330 million over 13 seasons, a steep price that the owner felt was worth it.
We now know, of course, that Harper’s arrival, along with that of four other former All-Stars (J.T. Realmuto, Andrew McCutchen, Jean Segura, and David Robertson) could not steer the Phillies to where they wanted to go, which was back to the postseason for the first time since 2011.
The reasons for the Phillies’ failure to significantly move the win-total needle has already been dissected quite a bit and it will be some more over the coming days.
We can tell you this: It was not Harper’s fault, because the Phillies got the better of the two 26-year-old, free-agent superstars.
Harper gave the Phillies everything they could have hoped for in his first season and maybe even one thing they could not have expected.
“It was good,” Harper said before the Phillies finished their disappointing season with a 4-3 loss to the Miami Marlins. “There’s definitely some room for improvement. I’m really excited about the way I battled. There were ups and downs, and to be where I’m at right now, that’s why we call it a season.”
Harper, after going 2-for-5 in the season finale, finished with a .260 batting average, a .372 on-base percentage and an .882 OPS. He had 36 doubles, 35 home runs, and 114 RBIs. His numbers were better than Machado’s in every single one of those categories. Some other free-agent hitters had better seasons than Harper, but they were all in their 30s. Harper, meanwhile, has three seasons left in his 20s and there is reason to believe he is going to get better.
In fact, he did improve significantly as a right fielder in his first season here. There were a lot of questions about his defense after last season, and he was determined to alleviate those concerns. With the assistance of first-year Phillies first-base coach and outfield instructor Paco Figueroa, Harper became one of the better defensive right fielders in baseball. He finished with 13 outfield assists, tying a career high while finishing tied for the second-highest total in baseball.
“I’ve really taken advantage of Paco’s help in the outfield,” Harper said. “I felt that was huge for me. I really worked and tried to get better out there. I didn’t want to be a liability. I want my pitchers to be able to rely on me to make plays.”
Harper also proved he has the thick skin required to play in Philadelphia. While he took his greatest abuse from his former fans in Washington, he did also feel the wrath of hometown boos a few times during his first season at Citizens Bank Park.
“That wasn’t difficult at all,” Harper said. “Playing in Philly, it’s going to be like that and you have to understand that and understand that it comes from a place of them wanting to win and them wanting you to be the best player you can each day. I think I got booed for the first time three games in and I walked back to the dugout thinking I’d have booed myself. That’s the type of player I am and how I’ve always been. The fans hold you accountable for that and it makes you want to hustle and it makes you want to play hard. I absolutely loved every single day I came to this ballpark to play.”
On the final day of his first season, Harper received nothing but adulation from the Fan Appreciation Day crowd at Citizens Bank Park. The fans applauded loudly when he spoke to them outside the home dugout before the game, they chanted “Thank you Harper” in the middle of the game and they gave him a loud ovation when he flied out to deep center field in his final at-bat of the season in the bottom of the ninth.
“That was awesome,” Harper said. “Being able to sit back and hear them support me ... like they’ve done all season long. I’ve tried to play hard for them. I’m going to continue to do that. These fans deserve that. This city deserves that.”
Harper, of course, did not love the outcome of his first season in Philadelphia, but he believes better days lie ahead.
“Of course we need to get guys healthy,” he said. “We need to understand where we’re at as an organization and what is the best move for the organization and where we need to go. We need to get some of our guys back in the bullpen, get some of our guys back [in the rotation] as well and get some of the guys healthy back in our lineup.”
Harper said he planned to stick around Philadelphia for at least a few days before heading back to his home in Las Vegas, and he figured he would meet with Middleton at some point.
“I think I said at my first press conference that I don’t know if it’s going to be this year or next year or the year after that, but I know the type of direction we’re going in as an organization and I know the type of people we have in this organization and I believe in it. I believe in what Middleton is going to do and I believe in what [Matt] Klentak is going to do as well. The staff we do have, I do believe in them. We’re going to get better in the offseason hopefully. I have trust in Middleton.
“Beyond that, I think we have a great minor-league system and some guys who really showed themselves this year. Adam Haseley was one of them. Spencer Howard I think is going to help us next year. Alec Bohm is going to help us as well.”
Harper does have one real concern and it’s a justified one.
“I think the biggest thing is that the NL East is a juggernaut,” Harper said. “It’s a very, very good division and I think it’s going to just keep getting better. You have three number-one starters in D.C. You have three number-one starters in New York. The Braves of course are the Braves. They won the division by 12 games. So it’s going to be tough, but I’m looking forward to that challenge and I think this team is looking forward to that challenge.”