Arguably baseball’s most popular name ends his extended free agency, signing with the Phillies. Harper comes with plenty of uncertainty, but he has game-changing upside. He has both met his hype and come way short of it. So which Harper did Philadelphia just sign?
This was, generally, an awful winter in baseball. Where other sports are thriving by dominating the year-round news cycle, turning player acquisition and player movement into a 365-day media blitz, baseball, who had a head-start on this, sunk under the weight of collusion posts. 2018 was the winter that was promised. It was the winter we were told our favorite teams were waiting for, with Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Clayton Kershaw and more coming to market. You’ll forgive fans for thinking something is amiss when we were sold on waiting for this offseason.
Harper’s search for a team and a big contract finally came to an end when he signed with the Philadelphia Phillies Thursday reportedly for a whopping 13 years, $330 million. Like Machado, Harper ultimately signed a favorable deal. Much of the endgame of Harper’s free agency focused on mystery teams, late offers, and the merits of short-term, high-dollar-value deals, a contract structure Harper never seemed keen on signing. Ultimately, reports indicate the Phillies gave him everything he set out to get and then some: a long-term, plus-$300 million deal with no opt-outs.
If this was the offseason that fell victim to its hype, it’s fitting that it’s the offseason when Harper was available.
Harper is phenomenal in snippets. A decade after he was advertised as the generational talent, the fact that he’s not the best player in baseball overshadows that he’s pretty good. 26 hitters in the last 100 years have 9+ bWAR seasons at age 26 or younger, a list that includes names like Willie Mays, Lou Gehrig, Rogers Hornsby, Ty Cobb, Reggie Jackson, Mickey Mantle, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez and Babe Ruth. It also includes multiple seasons from Mike Trout and Mookie Betts. Frankly, he’s not a class above everyone. He’s not a shlub, either.
He can be a .400/.500/.900 guy who can and has topped a 1.000 OPS before. He is the rare player that can earn bold stats on Baseball Reference, but almost all of his league-leader numbers come from one season. He once posted a 197 wRC+, the highest number since Bonds; he’s been in the top-25 in adjusted weighted runs created only twice in seven seasons.
He just finished a catastrophic season in the field. That’ll be a problem. It’s one thing when shortstops or center fielders regress; the decline for corner outfielders is a lot less gentle.
Still, Harper is just 26 (turning 27 this season); if you’re skeptical that his best offensive season was an outlier, his worst defensive season—worst by miles—could be, too. No Gold Gloves, but the possibility that he’ll create more runs than he’ll allow is an acceptable risk, especially for the first half of this deal. 26-year-olds with Harper’s CV aren’t usually available, and while teams are averse to spending big on past performance and rightfully cagey about spending on hype, what you’re paying for is more than good hair (though Harper’s marketability certainly helped him eke out a few more million than the similarly-productive Machado). He just doesn’t come with certainty.
For the Phillies, Harper isn’t just a boost to their Q score: he is the latest in a string of signings that improves the starting eight and creates depth through displacement. J.T. Realmuto is about the best possible upgrade to a lineup weak link, regardless of the prospect cost. Jean Segura locks down short, creating a camp battle for the starting third base job between Maikel Franco and Scott Kingery. Kingery can also back up three positions on the infield if needed. Harper’s arrival is going to push one of Nick Williams or Odubel Herrera to the bench, and in the process, he gives Philadelphia a much stronger five-man outfield group top-to-bottom. Philadelphia’s lineup picks up a needed left-handed power bat that could comfortably notch 30, 35+ homers in one of the game’s friendliest hitter’s parks.
The Phillies did their key shopping within the N.L. East, which is shaping up to be one of baseball’s best battlegrounds this upcoming season. The Realmuto deal didn’t really change what anyone expects from Miami, but Harper comes from the division’s on-again-off-again Big Bad of the last seven years.
Yet the Nationals should be fine. What’s more, it would be surprising if they didn’t improve on last season’s 82-win disappointment. That’s not a knock on Harper so much as it is a testament to Washington’s roster: they’ve doubled down on frontline pitching this offseason, and they’re well-positioned to lose Harper in the outfield. Certainly, any team would prefer to have the best version of Harper in their own lineup. It turns out that the Nationals still might, only his name is now Juan Soto, and he just played 116 of the best games by a 19-year-old in baseball history. I still give the Nationals the slight edge in this year’s fight for the eastern crown, but not with certainty.
I feel like this has been a common refrain throughout this winter in the N.L. East, but the value of every move made is either heightened or diminished by the next move, or lack thereof. That’s part of why this division is so compelling: no team looked so close to complete that a little bit of revamping would make them clear-cut favorites. For the Phillies, pitching still needs some work. As of now, it appears shoring up the rotation, solidifying the bullpen, or standing pat are all still potential next moves. At some point, the roster you have is the one you’re playing on Opening Day, and any remaining additions become spot fixes throughout the year.
If this is it for preseason work for Philadelphia, they’ve done a great job of accelerating their turnaround timeline. There is no runaway favorite in the National League, let alone the East. There’s barely an elite club on the DH-less side of baseball. To be a contender for a postseason spot in the 2019 edition of the N.L. is synonymous with being a candidate for October N.L. representative. There is no “happy to be here” this year: if you get into the N.L. bracket, you could expect to go even further.
A team with Bryce Harper, even an elite Bryce Harper, never has. But if Philadelphia gets the best out of one of baseball’s brightest, forget about the next nine seasons beyond this one–they’re in the mix for pennants and rings right now.
Khurram Kalim is a senior writer for Bronx to Bushville.