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Gabe Kapler: Bryce Harper might be the best player in baseball



Bryce Harper will be a free-agent at the conclusion of the 2018 season. (Arturo Pardavila III/Wikimedia Commons)

In his 50th career game at Citizens Bank Park Wednesday night, Bryce Harper launched his 14th career home run at the stadium. Many opposing players have enjoyed hitting at Citizens Bank Park since it opened in 2004 – including Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth during their tenures with the Nationals – but perhaps none more than Harper. In fact, Harper told Ryan Lawrence, writing for Philly Voice, that he loves playing at Citizens Bank Park in front of Phillies fans. But with no more remaining games on the schedule against the Nationals, those fans that Harper loves playing in front of couldn’t help but wonder if his 14th home run at Citizens Bank Park will be the final one that comes as a National, or perhaps as an opposing player at all.

Following being swept by the Nationals, Phillies manager Gabe Kapler paid a compliment to the Nationals lineup – Harper specifically, as noted by Scott Lauber of The Philadelphia Inquirer:

“Their lineup is exceptional. We always knew that,” said Kapler, adding that “Bryce Harper might be the best player in baseball,” a compliment to file away for when Harper reaches free agency two months from now.

As has been well-documented for the better part of the last five years, Harper, a six-time All-Star, can become a free-agent this offseason. Like Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop/third baseman Manny Machado, Harper will be just 26 when he reaches free-agency, making him one of the more appealing free-agents the sport has ever had.

Despite hitting 23 home runs, walking 78 times and being voted an All-Star, Harper had a disappointing first half the by the standards he has set. However, after batting just .214 in the first-half of the season, Harper has slashed .319/.439/.584 with 10 home runs, 40 RBIs and a 1.023 OPS since the All-Star Break. His 18.1 walk percentage is second in the sport to only Los Angeles Angels superstar Mike Trout. Prior to the All-Star Break, The Athletic‘s Jayson Stark wondered if Harper wouldn’t have to return to the Nationals in 2019, signing a long-term deal that allowed him to re-enter the free-agent market in the coming offseasons if he put together an MVP-caliber season.

Though the Phillies may still view Machado as their No. 1 target this offseason, it’s hard to ignore the second-half that Harper has had. It’s also fair to wonder if his ceiling doesn’t remain higher than Machado’s. Keep in mind, this is someone that in 2015 slashed .330/.460/.649 with 42 home runs, a 77.7 offensive WAR and a 9.3 fWAR. Here’s a list of right fielders in the Hall of Fame or with Hall of Fame credentials that never put up a 9.3 fWAR in a season: Hank Aaron, Mel Ott, Frank Robinson, Roberto Clemente, Al Kaline, Reggie Jackson, Tony Gwynn, Larry Walker and Ichiro Suzuki. Harper did it when he was 22. Perhaps that season was a fluke (although even if he gets close to that he’ll be a Hall of Famer himself), but it’s hard to shake how good it was so early in his career.

It was also hard to shake the feeling over the past three days that regardless of where Harper plays in 2019, his Nationals career may be winding down. Whatever damage his first-half of the season may have done to his free-agent value, Harper’s dominant second-half has likely made up for. The Nationals – who, as is well noted, haven’t gotten out of the first round of the postseason during Harper’s tenure – are in the midst of an extremely disappointing campaign in which it appears they’ll likely finish at least behind the Atlanta Braves in a very winnable National League East. And the emergence of rookie phenom Juan Soto, who looks like a more complete player than Harper was at age 19, may make losing their franchise icon in free-agency a slightly easier pill to swallow.

Though Kapler may have slightly exaggerated in his compliment of Harper, the former No. 1 overall pick is in the midst of another stretch that has put his career on a Hall of Fame trajectory. It will be interesting to see how highly Phillies brass thinks of Harper come free-agency, but we have a pretty good idea where their manager stands.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Nick

    September 13, 2018 at 4:32 pm

    I’m all in on Harper now. Not only do you mention his ceiling being higher, but I think his offensive floor is lower too. Simplifying and looking at OPS+, Harper’s worst seasons have been 111, 114, 118 while Machado’s have been 98 (rookie, 51 games), 102, 106, and 110. Harper’s average OPS+ is 139 vs Machado’s 121. That is huge.

    Machado certainly plays a more valuable position(s) and is a better fielder. But between how sketchy defensive metrics are and the fact that he wants to play SS, I’d take the better offensive player. Then if adding a second add a starter like Corbin or Kuechel and a bullpen arm like Miller, Britton, or Kimbrel.

    Make sure JP and Kingery get to play every day next season to see what we have. If it goes badly go after Arenado or Bogarts. If they play well, hold out for Trout in 2020.

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