Okay, Phillies Nation, here we are, finally. What began as one of the most anticipated Hot Stove seasons in Philadelphia Phillies history is drawing to a close. It has been a long, at times exciting, often times frustrating off-season around these parts.
The first official day of spring does not come until March 20, exactly one month from today. It is snowing today in Philadelphia, but spring training has begun down in Clearwater, Florida. We have begun walking down the path towards the 2019 baseball season.
The local professional baseball team appears to be greatly improved. Rhys Hoskins is back at first base. Jean Segura and J.T. Realmuto bring All-Star talent in their prime to the shortstop and catcher positions. Former MVP Andrew McCutchen is now out in left field. David Robertson bulked up an already talented bullpen. Cy Young finalist Aaron Nola, newly wealthy, leads the rotation.
But while there has been great improvement, a large swath of the Philadelphia sports fan population remains uninspired. Yes, the Phillies appear to be better. But so do the club’s toughest rivals within the National League East Division and other top teams across the senior circuit.
Manny Machado, the talented and at times controversial superstar whom the Phillies pursued as a free agent is now off the board. The San Diego Padres lured the 26-year-old infielder to the west coast yesterday with a 10-year, $300 million contract that includes a player opt-out after five of those years.
Where we are now is at a point of clear focus. Bryce Harper is that focus point. One of baseball’s biggest stars, Harper has been the player whom Phillies fans have wanted all along. The fans expressed that desire clearly and overwhelmingly on social media and sports radio talk shows all winter long.
The Phillies are believed to be the leaders in the pursuit of Harper, a race that now appears to be drawing to a close. But if you read that sentence carefully it contains phrasing that you will find in nearly everything being said and written regarding Harper at this point: “believed to be” and “appears to be” are the key words.
WHO IS BRYCE HARPER?
For those who have been asleep at the wheel, here is a brief primer on the player himself. Harper is, like Machado, a 26-year-old superstar player who has reached free agency just as he is about to enter his prime playing years.
The first overall pick in the 2010 MLB Amateur Draft out of a Nevada junior college by the Washington Nationals, Harper has been an NL All-Star in six of his seven big-league seasons. He was the 2012 NL Rookie of the Year and then became the 2015 National League Most Valuable Player at just age 22.
Harper has prodigious power, the type not consistently seen at Citizens Bank Park since Ryan Howard‘s heyday nearly a decade ago. He has banged 184 career home runs, with 129 of those coming over the last four years. He has a career .279/.388/.512 slash line with a .900 career OPS.
His is what has been described as “generational talent“, a player of the type where only a few come along during any period of play in baseball history. Yes, he has weaknesses in his game. Yes, he demonstrated immaturity as a younger player. I’ll leave it to others to discuss those imperfections because, frankly, the good in his game and personality far outweighs the bad.
So let’s take a minute to catch everyone up on exactly where we are at this point in the pursuit of Harper. The Phillies organization, the folks representing him at Boras Corporation, and Harper himself have all been largely buttoned-up and tight-lipped in providing updates and information. None of these first-hand ships has, as yet, sprung a leak.
LATEST FROM NATIONAL MEDIA
To get the best current available read, we need to turn to the second-hand resources. I’m talking about those national and local reporters who have traditionally shown themselves to have the most reliable sources and inside information. So, what are they saying?
Jon Heyman, considered an MLB insider for years, has been going crazy on social media recently. He provides regular updates, always couched with that “believed to have” or “believed to be” phrasing and often regurgitating what is already well known.
His latest states that five teams are “believed still in contact“: the Phillies, Padres and Nationals, the San Francisco Giants and the Chicago White Sox. Heyman also states that Harper “is believed to have turned down multiple offers over 300M in recent weeks.” Who is it exactly that “believes” those things? Heyman himself? Who knows?
Bryce Harper is believed to have turned down multiple offers over 300M in recent weeks. at least 5 teams are believed still in contact, tho Philly, SF and perhaps Wash appear to have more chance than SD (just gave 300M to Manny) and CWS (seemed more focused on MM)
— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) February 20, 2019
Bob Nightengale of USA Today has repeatedly emphasized that he believes the Phillies are the clear front-runners and that they will land Harper. Many, including me, have speculated that, having lost out on Machado, the Chicago White Sox would now become the Phillies biggest challenge to winning the Harper sweepstakes.
However, Nightengale’s latest states that the Chisox are “out of the Bryce Harper sweepstakes“, and that they are turning their attention to other free agents.
The Chicago #WhiteSox, who are out of the Bryce Harper sweepstakes, still plan to make some smaller improvements to team after Manny Machado chose the #Padres. Versatile infielders Marwin Gonzalez and Josh Harrison, along with starter Gio Gonzalez, still on the free-agent board.
— Bob Nightengale (@BNightengale) February 20, 2019
Kevin Acee of the San Diego Union-Tribune is an extremely reliable Padres source. In the aftermath of their deal with Machado, Acee wrote that a “high-ranking team source said Tuesday, “We’re not signing him”” in regards to Harper.
Last Friday, Brittany Ghiroli at The Athletic wrote that “people in the Nationals’ organization, per sources, were told by the team’s front office this week that the team was out of the running for Harper.”
If these insiders can be taken at face value and believed to be speaking the truth of the various clubs, that actually puts the White Sox, Nationals and Padres out on Harper. That would appear to make it down to the Phillies and Giants.
In an appearance this morning on 105.7 The Fan out of Milwaukee, Nightengale framed that battle in this manner:
@BNightengale – "The Phillies are bidding against themselves. the only other team is the Giants. Things can change in a hurry, but right now the Phillies really want this guy." – On Bryce Harper
— 105.7FM The FAN (@1057FMTheFan) February 20, 2019
In a radio interview with 96.9 The Game out of Orlando, Florida today, J.P. Morosi stated “I think it’s gonna be the Phillies…They, I believe, are gonna have the biggest offer and they can also give Harper something that the Giants can’t which is an opportunity to win right now.”
Morosi also made a joke regarding the timing on a Harper announcement: “When is the Harper story gonna break? About three minutes before the Manny Machado press conference begins. And then you’ll have the crew of reporters all barreling out of the room to go Tweet news of the Harper signing.”
Henry Schulman of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote the following yesterday after Machado had signed with the division-rivals from San Diego: “The Giants have never played Keep Up With the Joneses, not under Brian Sabean, not under Bobby Evans, and apparently they won’t under Farhan Zaidi. Without mentioning Bryce Harper by name, Zaidi said the Giants do not feel compelled to make a huge move to counter Machado.”
However, Schulman also wrote that Zaidi said any deals that the Giants would make at this point would center on “improving our front-line roster.” Harper would certainly improve any team’s starting lineup.
LATEST FROM LOCAL MEDIA
Matt Gelb at The Athletic wrote the following regarding the dynamic that could be at play behind the scenes between general manager Matt Klentak, club president Andy MacPhail and their expanded baseball analytics people and principal owner John Middleton, whose “stupid money” comments earlier this off-season lit a spark in the fan base:
“Baseball people do not like it when business people interfere with negotiations. A valuation is an on-field one, period. But what if it isn’t?…Middleton…has spoken at length about his unwavering desire to win another championship…He loves baseball. He loves to win. How do you place a valuation on that?”
In a piece today at Forbes, Kevin Cooney tapped into the emotions of the fan base perfectly when he wrote that Middleton failing to get Harper signed now “would make a billionaire look like just another guy who talked a good game and yet folded when the dollars got to a certain level.”
I do think its fair to say, however, that the reputations of Klentak, MacPhail and Middleton for this fan base are all on the line in the next few days, whether they want to admit it or not.
— Kevin Cooney (@KevinCooney) February 19, 2019
Corey Seidman at NBC Sports Philadelphia sees the possibility of the Harper saga possibly now expanding to more teams and dragging on for awhile yet: “…if the $300 million-plus offers for Harper do not materialize because fewer teams are in on him, Harper and Boras could change course and go shorter, which would bring more teams back into the fold. The complexity of this all is why a Harper signing might not be imminent.”
WHERE WE NOW STAND
Based on what we have heard from reliable sources, the Phillies would appear to be clearly in the driver’s seat. It seems that they would indeed be willing to beat the Machado terms in a Harper deal. The San Francisco Giants might have a shot if Harper simply doesn’t want to come here and is willing to settle on a shorter-length deal. The Washington Nationals might be given a last chance to match or beat whatever final offer either the Phillies or Giants should make. So, how much might it take to get a deal done?
In a “Baseball Tonight” podcast released today, ESPN insider Buster Olney and guest Scott Miller of Bleacher Report both speculated that the Phillies would win the battle. Olney even came up with a number: “It would not shock me, because the Machado contract definitely is higher than most people in the game expected, it would not shock me if Bryce’s deal, when it’s first leaked out through one of Scott’s (Boras) guys in the media, it’s gonna have the number ‘4’ in it.”
Olney means $40 million per year, possibly even a 10-year $400 million deal. He then went on to specifically emphasize a similar point touched on by both Gelb and Cooney: “I do think that if he goes to the Phillies, it’s gonna be because John Middleton basically grabs the steering wheel away from the baseball analytics people in his front office and says “I don’t care about value, I know what the reactions of the fan base is gonna be if we don’t sign this guy!“”
And that is pretty much where we stand, folks. Personally, I’ve always been more of a “here’s what we know” guy than a “here’s what we think” or “here’s what we hope” type. But this is a unique process, as I’m sure most Phillies fans understand by now. Here at Phillies Nation, we’ll be striving to give you all of the most reliable information possible until that process is completed.
MORE FROM PHILLIES NATION:
- Klentak on Machado: “Sometimes you have to be willing to just walk away”
- Machado contract is a victory for players and puts pressure on Phillies with Harper
- San Diego Padres beat out Phillies and others in race for free agent Manny Machado
- Phillies could try to bolster their infield depth with other veteran free agent options
- Alec Bohm moves to the top in new Phillies prospect rankings
- Already baseball’s best catcher, J.T. Realmuto could get even better this year
- Mike Trout on one day joining the Phillies: “I can’t predict the future”