It took longer than one could have reasonably expected, but the Philadelphia Phillies have finally landed their biggest prize of the offseason, agreeing to terms with Bryce Harper on a reported 13-year, $330 million contract.
Spring training camps are open all across Major League Baseball but some of the biggest names still without a team, including Craig Kimbrel and Dallas Keuchel. But now we can at least cross Harper off the available list, a week after Manny Machado got $300 million over 10 years from the Padres.
Harper’s deal surpasses the $325 million, 13-year deal Giancarlo Stanton signed with the Marlins after the 2014 season.
Once Machado landed in San Diego, a logical path was cleared for Harper to Philadelphia. That path became clearer once Harper’s old team, the Nationals — who already looked like they were out on the outfielder in December — bowed out as well.
“We’ve moved on,” Nationals owner Mark Lerner told Todd Dybas of NBC Sports Washington, “We haven’t really heard from [Harper] in a couple months.”
That said, Harper had ancillary benefits if he decided to stay in D.C.:
The Dodgers mounted a late rally, with owner Mark Walter and manager Dave Roberts among the team contingent who flew to Las Vegas to meet with Harper Sunday night.
The Giants were in the Harper conversation as well, with an ownership meting of their own with Harper, including reportedly discussing a 10-year offer to the outfielder, per Alex Pavlovic of NBC Sports Bay Area.
Harper hit .249/.393/.496, a 135 wRC+, with 34 home runs and a major league best 130 walks in 2018, though it was an up-and-down year. He was bad at the plate in May and June, hitting a combined .206/.312/.460 for a two-month stretch that featured home runs but little else.
His defensive numbers were the worst of his career, dead last among major league outfielders in Total Zone Rating (22 runs below average) and Ultimate Zone Rating (-14.4 runs), and second-to-last in Defensive Runs Saved (-26). Harper was also miscast for a long stretch, starting 59 games in center field.
Playing out of position hurt the Phillies in 2018, with Scott Kingery at shortstop and Rhys Hoskins in the outfield contributing to a league-worst defense as a team. But with the additions, including Harper this offseason, Philadelphia is hitting all the right spots.
Even with his foibles Harper was still quite productive last year, including hitting .300/.434/.538 after the all-star break. The appeal of Harper is a potential return to his peak, which saw the outfielder hit .330/.460/.649 with 42 home runs in winning the MVP as a 22-year-old in 2015. Though he hasn’t been transcendent since then, the “normal” Harper over the last three years has still hit .267/.391/.505, averaging 29 home runs and 28 doubles with a 132 wRC+ that ranks 22nd in baseball during that span.
Harper is still just 26 years old, which is important when framing this contract. Albert Pujols was 32 in the first year of his 10-year contract, while Robinson Cano was 31. Miguel Cabrera‘s eight-year extension didn’t kick in until his age-33 season. The Phillies aren’t paying for Harper well into his 40s, but rather through his age-38 season. What they are getting at the front end of the contract are Harper’s prime years.
What Harper has done to date has been remarkable, and puts him in select company. He already has 184 home runs, which is more than Hank Aaron had before turning 26, and more than Giancarlo Stanton too. Only 11 players in MLB history have hit more home runs before age 26 than Harper, and seven are in the Hall of Fame, plus with Mike Trout, Alex Rodriguez, Pujols, and Andruw Jones.
For 2019 the folks at Steamer project Harper to hit .267/.399/.528 with 34 home runs. PECOTA projects Harper to hit .271/.392/.500 with 28 home runs. There isn’t one team in baseball that wouldn’t be improved by adding Harper to the middle of its lineup.
Even before signing Harper the Phillies were a contending team, one of four teams vying for an increasingly competitive National League East. Projections had Philadelphia just behind the division leaders but in a tightly bunched race. Signing Harper could be enough to close the gap.
2019 NL East projections (pre Harper)
*Over/under totals on January 22
Last year the Phillies accelerated their rebuild with surprise contention, even spending 32 game days in first place. Though they eventually stumbled to an under-.500 record (80-82), this year’s team has plenty of reinforcements to help ward off another September fade.
The Phillies were already active this offseason, which even before Harper made them stand out in baseball’s moribund winter. They addressed some of their biggest needs in a slew of moves:
Philadelphia ranked 27th in baseball with a 75 wRC+ from their shortstops, who hit just .235/.281/.370 as a group in 2018. That was solved with the trade for Jean Segura of the Mariners, who hit .308/.353/.449 the last three years. More importantly, Segura can handle shortstop defensively, unlike Scott Kingery, who started 101 games at the position for Philadelphia last year.
In another trade the Phillies nabbed arguably the best catcher in baseball in J.T. Realmuto, the latest all-star to get plucked from Miami.
|Position||2018 Phillies||2019 additions (Steamer projections)|
|Position||2018 Phillies||2019 additions (Steamer projections)|
|C||97 wRC+, 3.1 WAR||J.T. Realmuto (110 wRC+, 3.9 WAR)|
|SS||75 wRC+, 0.8 WAR||Jean Segura (101 wRC+, 2.5 WAR)|
|OF||104 wRC+, 3.7 WAR||Bryce Harper (148 wRC+, 4.8 WAR), Andrew McCutchen (127 wRC+, 2.9 WAR)|
|Relief||4.19 ERA, 23.6 K%||David Robertson (3.21, 31.9%), Juan Nicasio (3.71, 26.9%), James Pazos (3.87, 24.2%)|
Along with Segura from Seattle came relievers James Pazos and Juan Nicasio, and the Phillies also signed durable strikeout maven David Robertson, improving a Philadelphia bullpen that ranked 19th in ERA (4.19) and 13th in strikeout rate (23.6 percent) in 2018.
In the outfield the Phillies were middle of the pack in 2018, with a 104 wRC+ that ranked 15th in MLB, but now they not only have Harper but Andrew McCutchen, too, with the latter signing a three-year, $50 million deal.
Staff ace Aaron Nola, who finished third in Cy Young Award balloting last year, was signed to a four-year, $45 million contract extension earlier in February.
Philadelphia was linked to both Harper and Machado this offseason, and perhaps not as an either/or proposition. At the very least the Phillies wanted one of the two biggest names on the free agent market. Owner John Middleton said in November, “We’re going into this expecting to spend money, and maybe even be a little bit stupid about it.’’
Though given the state of the Phillies’ payroll they could certainly afford to add. Before Harper, the Phillies were at $129 million in total payroll for 2019, and with him they are at roughly $188 million toward the competitive balance tax per Cot’s Baseball Contracts, still under the $206 million tax threshold for this season. Philadelphia is a big market, one that can support a large payroll. The Phillies’ opening day payroll averaged $160 million from 2010-15, after all, though it was down to just $95 million on average the past three seasons.
The time to contend is now, and the Phillies are spending accordingly.
The Phillies as constructed now boast a deeper and dynamic lineup, and by adding Segura and moving Rhys Hoskins from the outfield to first base they have improved defensively as well. They are built to compete in what is shaping up to be a whale of a race in the National League East.