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Phillies salvage rebuilding effort with Bryce Harper signing

The Phillies had, by most standards, a terrific offseason entering the final day of February. GM Matt Klentak acquired catcher J.T. Realmuto and shortstop Jean Segura via trade and signed free agent outfielder Andrew McCutchen and reliever David Robertson. Last season, the Phillies went 80-82, finishing below .500 due to a second-half swoon. The club, however, needed Bryce Harper to justify the rebuild, especially with Manny Machado off the market. They finally got him after months of consternation, inking Harper to a 13-year, $330 million contract on Thursday.

Baseball Prospectus’ forecasting system PECOTA pegged the pre-Harper Phillies for an 85-77 record, good for a third-place tie with the Braves in the NL East. While five wins is a non-negligible improvement, it is also not a position in which the Phillies’ front office should have felt comfortable. To be an 85-win team is to teeter on the edge of contention, to challenge for a division title but ultimately settle for one of the two Wild Card slots, in which case a coin flip -- in essence -- determines one’s progression deeper into the playoffs. Teams have taken an all-or-nothing approach to roster construction in recent years, recognizing that investing resources into an 85-win team is a risky endeavor. Why not suffer through a few 60- and 70-win seasons in order to eventually build up to a 95- or 100-win roster? That’s what the Cubs and Astros have famously done in recent years, and that’s what the Phillies have been trying to do.

If the Phillies opened up the 2019 regular season without Machado or Harper, their entire rebuilding effort would have been a waste. Sure, in a world without Harper in a Phillies uniform, Odúbel Herrera could have bounced back into All-Star form, Nick Pivetta and Jerad Eickhoff could have finally reached their potential, and the entire defense could have taken a huge step forward to right the wrongs of last year, pushing the Phillies towards a division title. But the rest of the division got better this offseason along with the Phillies and they have fewer unknowns. The Mets added Robinson Canó, Edwin Díaz, Jed Lowrie, Wilson Ramos, and Jeurys Familia. The Nationals added Patrick Corbin, Brian Dozier, Aníbal Sánchez, and Kyle Barraclough. The Braves added Josh Donaldson to the young and talented roster that won the NL East in 2018. Despite all of that, the addition of Harper will arguably make the Phillies favorites in the NL East.

This is not to say the Phillies don’t still have problems, but Harper’s presence will make an impact right away even from a non-production-based perspective. Herrera and Rhys Hoskins won’t have to carry the team on their backs the way they did at times over the last three years. It’s not as big a deal if Scott Kingery still doesn’t find his footing against major league competition. Pivetta, Eickhoff, and Vince Velasquez having off-nights won’t be a death sentence because Harper will save their hides with a go-ahead two-run double or a home run late in the game sometimes. In short, it gives the young players more room to be flawed players and to work on improving out of the spotlight.

Perhaps most importantly for the franchise, the Phillies’ front office maintains credibility with fans by signing Harper. Owner John Middleton kicked off the offseason by proclaiming to Bob Nightengale of USA TODAY Sports, “We’re going into this expecting to spend money, and maybe even be a little bit stupid about it.” As a result, missing out on both Machado and Harper would have been criminal. The Phillies cut payroll significantly during its rebuilding effort specifically for this once-in-a-generation free agent market. We won’t see players with the combination of youth and talent on the free agent market in the near future, especially since teams have gotten in the habit of locking up their young stars to long-term extensions well before they’re able to test free agency. The Phillies ensured they won’t have to cross their fingers and hope Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, and Jacob deGrom make it to free agency. Fans can confidently secure their season tickets knowing they will be paying to see a competitive team, ostensibly for the next decade.

This doesn’t get said enough, but Harper is only 26 years old. He is younger than Realmuto, Segura, Herrera, César Hernández, Maikel Franco, and Vince Velasquez, who are all considered part of the Phillies’ core now. And Harper might not have even hit his peak yet. The Phillies will get at least three or four years of what is generally considered a player’s prime, and who knows how quickly Harper’s skill set wanes once he hits his 30’s. There has not been a better bet in free agency since, arguably, Álex Rodríguez. Harper will now be part of a terrific Phillies roster that should contend for years to come. Kudos to the Phillies for signing a superstar player and living up their promises.

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