A back injury that he dealt with for at least half of the 2020 season may have prevented Bryce Harper from competing for the National League MVP Award, but make no mistake, the 27-year-old was still very productive in his second season with the Philadelphia Phillies.
If you project the numbers that Harper put up over the 60-game slate in 2020 out to a 162-game season, he would have slashed .268/.420/.542 with 36 home runs, 92 RBIs and a staggering 136 walks, compared to 120 strikeouts. Is that as good as it gets for Harper? The Phillies hope not, but he was far from the main reason why the team missed the playoffs for the ninth consecutive season.
At the forefront of the issues that plagued the 2020 Phillies was a historically bad bullpen, one that finished the season with an ERA north of seven.
There can be a temptation for a deep-pocketed team to go on a signing spree to correct such issues, but it wasn’t as though the Phillies didn’t invest in proven veterans for their bullpen in 2020. But David Robertson never pitched. Tommy Hunter was actually pretty effective, but that came after essentially missing the entire 2019 season. Brandon Workman, Heath Hembree and David Phelps all struggled after being acquired at midseason to improve the beleaguered bullpen. The problem in 2020 wasn’t that the Phillies didn’t invest in their bullepn, it’s that the investments they made didn’t work.
If they hope to contend for the National League East title in 2021, the Phillies may have no choice but to make more major external investments in the bullpen. Trading for Milwaukee Brewers closer Josh Hader may be unlikely, but Oakland Athletics closer Liam Hendricks will be a free agent, as will Chicago White Sox closer Alex Colomé. Both are on the wrong side of 30, but both were also nearly perfect in the short season of 2020.
Still, when asked about potentially making major investments in the bullpen this offseason, Harper stressed the importance of developing talent internally.
“I think the bullpen is made from within,” Harper said after the season finale this past Sunday. “Not all teams go out and spend a million, bajillion dollars on bullpens. You can’t do it. You can’t go out and just spend a crazy amount of money on a bullpen, because you have to be able to rely on the guys in your organization to get the job done. Pitching wins championships…developing wins championships…being able to develop and understand what it takes to develop wins championships.
“I thought a lot of young guys came up this year and did a great job for us. If that’s Bohmer [Alec Bohm]…putting JoJo [Romero] in certain situations, I thought he did a great job for us…[Connor] Brogdon, I though he did an unbelievable job for us…Spencer [Howard] is going to be Spence for us…the more he gets healthy and understands how to pitch in the big leagues, I think he’s going to be very good for us as well. So you have to be able to build from within…you have to be able to rely on the guys in your organization to get you to where you need to be.”
As far as the bullpen goes, whoever is at the helm of the front office this offseason will likely need to attack the overhaul in multiple ways. Yes, it’s encouraging that JoJo Romero and Connor Brogdon flashed the potential to be effective in high-leverage situations. Perhaps Ranger Suárez and Víctor Arano will bounce-back in 2021 as well. The Phillies desperately need a more even year from Héctor Neris next season, as the organization will almost certainly pick up his $7 million option for 2021. Phelps has a $4.5 million club option for 2021, one the Phillies would be wise to exercise and hope his brief struggles in Philadelphia aren’t indicative of what’s to come.
However, simply hoping for internal progression and regression to the mean isn’t good enough. It’s difficult to know exactly what José Álvarez could command in free agency this offseason, but we know that the Phillies desperately missed his reliability when he went on the injured list. And yes, whether it’s signing Hendricks or Colomé, or even trading for Brad Hand if the Cleveland Indians don’t want to pick up his $10 million club option for 2021, the Phillies will need to make a major external investment this offseason and hit on it.
But Harper is right. This isn’t the New York Yankees of the late 1990s – money can only carry you so far in today’s game. You can trade for Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Hunter Pence, but you’ll only be a great team if you’ve developed stars from within as well, like Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard, Cole Hamels, Ryan Madson and Carlos Ruiz.
The Phillies have churned out some stars, but Rhys Hoskins and Alec Bohm are the only two star-adjacent position players that the organization has brought up since Howard made his debut in 2004. That trend has to change. Aaron Nola, to this point, is the only frontline starter the Phillies have grown since Cole Hamels debuted in 2006. That trend has to change. Outside of Madson, the list of homegrown star relievers in the club’s history is nearly non-existent. That trend has to change.
Harper went on to look back at his time with the Washington Nationals, a team that was a consistent postseason participant because they did a good job mixing the development of blue-chip talents with picking their spots to sign and trade for stars.
“The group we were in D.C., we had a lot of great veteran guys, we had a lot of great young guys, but we had pitching. We had some of the best pithing in all of baseball. And you know we got there, and we never were able to get to that next step until they got one more pitcher. And I think the thing is, pitching wins championships. You guys know this, I mean everybody in baseball knows this. Teams that go into each year when they have the opportunity to have three or four horses, and they have a bullpen that is built from within, they go out and they do their job and they win.”
The two star aces that were with the Nationals during Harper’s time were Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer. The Nationals made the best of landing the No. 1 pick in 2009 and taking Strasburg, a year before taking Harper with the No. 1 pick. They were able to sign Scherzer to a seven-year/$210 million deal in free agency ahead of the 2015 season because they had already developed Strasburg and Jordan Zimmerman internally, and had a lineup full of home-grown stars in Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, Anthony Rendon and Ian Desmond. Right now, outside of Nola, Hoskins and Bohm, pretty much all of the notable players on the Phillies roster were either acquired through trades or free agency.
Of course, the third pitcher that the Nationals ultimately signed to pair with Strasburg and Scherzer was Patrick Corbin. Signing Corbin essentially put an end to Harper’s time in D.C., but the move propelled them to a World Series. You know why? Because the Nationals were so good at developing home-grown position playing talent that even as the best player in the history of their franchise left, they knew Rendon and Trea Turner were close to peaking, and Juan Soto and Victor Robles were ready to become impact major leaguers. It’s been since the mid-2000s that the Phillies were able to let impact major league players go and not miss a beat because they were such a deep organization.
The good news is that Harper thinks the Phillies internally possess three legitimate starters.
“I think as a team – as an organization – we have those three horses at our top, especially with the way [Zach] Eflin threw the ball this year…the way [Zack] Wheeler threw the ball this year…his first year coming in and doing his job was pretty incredible…I think he kept us in a lot of games, I think he was able to come in and not miss a beat coming from New York…and [Aaron] Nola, of course, he’s great every single time he goes out there as well. So, I think you guys are going to hear me echo it a lot, pitching wins championships. And having a good catcher back there wins championships as well. It’s just something that didn’t happen for us this year, and hopefully, we can go into this offseason, get better and do what we can to get back to where we need to be.”
Though both disappointed down the stretch, Nola and Wheeler each graded out among the 10 best pitchers in the National League. The Phillies have two horses at the top of their rotation. Whether they have three or not is less clear.
Zach Eflin did post a 3.39 FIP in 11 games – 10 of which were starts – but has a career 4.63 ERA and 4.64 FIP. Spencer Howard threw just 24 1/3 innings at the major league level in 2020 and has dealt with shoulder injuries in consecutive seasons, so it’s fair to wonder how much Joe Girardi will be able to push him next season.
RADIO.COM Sports MLB Insider Jon Heyman did suggest earlier this week that the Phillies could be an interesting landing spot for Cincinnati Reds righty Trevor Bauer, a National League Cy Young front-runner that’s due to hit free agency this offseason. However, he did so after reporting that the Phillies are pessimistic about their chances to re-sign J.T. Realmuto, something Harper had been adamant needs to happen. Could the Phillies maybe be slightly better if they invested in Bauer over Realmuto? Perhaps, but probably not enough to be a World Series contender. They’d be fixing one hole, and creating another.
The takeaway here is that Harper is correct. It’s been apparent for close to a decade now that the Phillies haven’t consistently turned out enough stars from their minor league system, and the bullpen is the most apparent example of that currently. Then again, the Phillies have been aware of this for some time now and have been unable to correct it. So the organization may agree with Harper here, but whether they’re able to get back on track in terms of developing blue-chip talents on a regular basis remains to be seen.
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