PHILS INSIDER

Sorry, kids, Bryce Harper doesn’t want to be handing out Halloween candy this year

PHILS INSIDER

It was a tale of two offseasons for the Phillies this winter.

The first part was slow and without much action and at his home in Las Vegas, Bryce Harper started to wonder.

"You get halfway through the offseason and there's not really much going on," he said from Clearwater, Florida on Thursday. "You're kind of sitting there worrying about what our identity as a team is going to be."

On December 11, the Phillies hired Dave Dombrowski as president of baseball operations and Harper stopped worrying.

"I thought, 'Wow, here we go. This is the start of our offseason,'" Harper said. "You don't bring in Dombrowski unless it's a win-now kind of move."

Shortly after joining the Phillies, Dombrowski and Harper spoke on the phone. Harper offered his congratulations and jokingly told Dombrowski he was "glad that Nashville didn't work out." 

The Phillies had targeted Dombrowski from the time Matt Klentak was stripped of his general manager's duties after last season, but Dombrowski wasn't initially interested in joining the team because he was committed to a group that was trying to bring an expansion team to Nashville. In early December, Dombrowski learned that the Nashville effort was going to take more time than originally thought. He recalibrated his GPS and when the Phillies called one last time, he said yes.

Before joining the Phillies two years ago on a 13-year, $330 million contract, Harper had sought assurances from ownership and the front office that the team would be committed to winning a championship. He saw the hiring of Dombrowski, a World Series winner in Florida (1997) and Boston (2018) and a two-time participant in Detroit (2006 and 2012) as a reaffirmation of the commitment and the re-signing of free-agent catcher J.T. Realmuto to a five-year, $115.5 million deal as more of the same.

 

Harper politicked long and loud on Realmuto's behalf last summer and the general feeling was he wouldn't have been a happy camper if the team didn't bring back Realmuto. But, deep down inside, Harper said he always believed Realmuto would be back. 

"I kind of wanted to put my trust and faith in the team to keep their word," he said. "When we sat down before free agency that was one of the big themes and goals of this team, to sign free agents when we could and get guys when we could, so I put my faith and trust in them to do their job. I had that faith in them."

In addition to Realmuto, Dombrowski and new general manager Sam Fuld re-signed shortstop Didi Gregorius, added two veteran starting pitchers in Matt Moore and Chase Anderson and remade the bullpen with the signing of Archie Bradley and the additions of several other accomplished veterans.

The Phils have not made the playoffs since 2011, nor had a winning season since then. Harper, who came to Philadelphia to win, has spent the last two Octobers at home. He's eager to change course.

"I think this is the best division in baseball," Harper said of the NL East. "I don't think that's even a question. We have five teams in this division that are really good. This is going to be a juggernaut of a division. 

"Hopefully, if we put our right foot forward and have our lineup healthy all year and our starting pitching healthy all year long, with the revamped bullpen we have, I think we'll be right there in the hunt.

"I hate being home for Halloween, I can tell you that. I think the town needs it. The city of Philadelphia deserves (postseason baseball) and they need it. We're a team that can hopefully do that for them and give that to them. They deserve to be in the stands in October and I know they're willing to do that."

The Phillies would have made the playoffs last season if they hadn't had the worst bullpen in the majors. The Phils lost 21 games in which they held a lead at one point.

In the end, the Phils missed making the expanded postseason field by one win. Maybe they would have made it if Harper had been healthy all season.

Harper started the shortened season like a dynamo, hitting .343 with a .714 slugging percentage through August 22. Those were the sixth- and second-best marks in the majors at that point.

After his hot start, Harper tailed off. He hit just .225 and slugged just .442 after August 22. Later, it was revealed that he'd been playing through a back injury. Harper said Thursday that it hurt so much he had trouble throwing.

 

Despite the bad back and the decline in production over the final month, Harper did hit .268 with 13 homers, 33 RBIs and a .962 OPS, which was eighth-best in the NL. He led the majors with 49 walks and was fifth in on-base percentage at .420. 

Harper is healthy now and believes he can stay that way.

"We have a great program of what I need to do and how I need to do it," he said. "I feel really good about where I'm at, but I have to stay on top of this thing. I need to understand how I'm working and my workload. I want to play every day. I want to be able to perform every day as well and be smart performing every single day. The Phillies and the city of Philadelphia are going to need me to do that for us to win."

Though just 28, Harper is entering his 10th season in the majors and he's never played beyond a division series — he was part of four losing teams in the NLDS in Washington — never mind a World Series.

The hunger rages on. But Harper believes he's in the right place.

"I love playing in Philadelphia," he said. "I feel like I can be myself here.

"We have a new GM, a new president of baseball ops, a manager (who has won), all that stuff. So I think we have a really good team of people around us and everybody is buying in and everybody wants to win games and that's the ultimate goal.

"You have to win games to get to where you want to be. If you don't win games you're going to have the fifth pick in the draft and I don't want to have that. You know what I'm saying? I think everybody knows how last season went. We want to put that behind us and get into this year, win our games each month that we have to and hopefully be there when we need to."

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