Phillies

O-H, yeah, Bryce Harper gives Indians fans a little something to remember him by

O-H, yeah, Bryce Harper gives Indians fans a little something to remember him by

CLEVELAND — Bryce Harper knows how to play a crowd. He’s done it all season at Citizens Bank Park with his pre-game bow to the fans in the right-field seats followed by his heaving of a warm-up ball into the upper deck.

The fans love it.

They love it even more when he hits home runs.

Harper belted his 33rd homer of the season to lead a 9-4 Phillies’ win over the Cleveland Indians on Saturday night. The home run was an impressive one, a three-run shot that put the Phils ahead, 5-4, with one out in the fifth inning.

The Phillies have played 153 games and they are in the midst of an 11-game road trip. At this time of year, the days seem to become a blur. Sometimes players don’t even know what day it is, or what city they’re waking up in. All they know is that there is another game to play.

But Harper was keenly aware of his surroundings Saturday night, keenly aware of what state he was in. As he crossed home plate after his go-ahead homer, he raised his arms and made the "O-H” sign above his head. And as he spoke with reporters after the game, he wore an Ohio State cap — backwards, of course.

“Big win for the Bucks today,” he said of the 76-5 whooping that Ohio State’s football team put on Miami of Ohio.

Harper’s wife, Kayla, played soccer at Ohio State. That was the birth of his fandom.

The fans in Cleveland appreciated the love that Harper showed for the Buckeyes.

They just would have preferred that he’d done it after, say, a harmless single.

Phillies starter Jason Vargas really appreciated the homer. He gave up four runs in the first two innings — two were unearned after Jean Segura’s error in the first inning — but kept his club in the game until the bats got going in the middle innings. Vargas pitched 6 2/3 bullpen-saving innings and ended up with his first win since July 28, when he was a member of the Mets.

Brad Miller hit the first of his two homers in the fourth inning and Harper put the Phils ahead with his three-run shot in the fifth. Harper’s homer was preceded by hits from Adam Haseley and J.T. Realmuto. 

With his team up, 4-2, Cleveland manager Terry Francona brought in lefty Oliver Perez to face Harper. Perez had retired Harper the night before. This time, Harper fouled off five pitches before hitting the ninth pitch, a full-count slider, over the wall in right field.

“It’s nice to be able to stay competitive and keep us in position to get back into the game and then, golly, I mean I can’t say that I’ve seen a more professional at-bat than the one Harper had against Perez right there,” Vargas said. “I think that any time you see an at-bat like that from your main guy, it’s just — he really didn’t give in and he really made the effort to stay in the at-bat and do everything he could do to get his pitch and he really capitalized and made a difference for us.”

Harper has 15 homers and 36 RBIs in his last 40 games.

“He has been tremendous in the second half of the season for us,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “We win when Harper hits.

“That nine-pitch at-bat felt determined to me. Like he was determined not to fail. He was determined to put the ball in play and put it in play hard. He just did a good job of getting up underneath that baseball and putting it in the air.”

The Phils hit four homers on the night and they got excellent work from the bullpen, which has a 2.69 ERA — second-best in baseball — over the last 20 games.

A smiling Vargas stood in the dugout and greeted reliever Jared Hughes when he retired dangerous Francisco Lindor to end the seventh.

The victory was the 99th of Vargas’ career and it kept the Phils mathematically alive in the NL wild-card race at five games back with nine to play.

Vargas, 36, intends to pitch next season — the Phillies hold a $6 million option on his contract, though it’s unclear if they will pick that up — but he would prefer to get his 100th win before then.

He lines up to make one more start this season.

“I’d definitely like to get it sooner than later, obviously, but I’ve gone this long without having 100,” Vargas said. “It will be nice when it comes and hopefully it comes. It would definitely be a nice thing to have.”

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Braves' signing of Will Smith has ripple effect on NL East and free agency

Braves' signing of Will Smith has ripple effect on NL East and free agency

Two weeks into free agency, the Braves have been more active than any team. Their biggest move was Thursday's signing of left-hander Will Smith, the top reliever on the market.

Prior to that, Atlanta brought back three of its own would-be-free-agents in right fielder Nick Markakis, catcher Tyler Flowers and reliever Darren O'Day.

The Smith signing is definitely the highest impact move of the bunch and makes the Braves a lot better. His deal is for a reported $40 million over three years. He is coming off his first All-Star appearance and back-to-back stellar years. He was 6-0 with 34 saves and a 2.76 ERA for the Giants in 2019, he struck out 96 in 65⅓ innings and he held lefties to a .157/.167/.229 batting line. Read that again ... 157/.167/.229!

Bryce Harper will face Smith many times over the next three years. The teams meet 19 times per season and you'd figure Smith will face Harper in a high-leverage situation whenever the game is late and close. Harper is 0 for 8 with five strikeouts lifetime against Smith. Smith will also factor into plenty of matchups with Juan Soto.

The Braves tried various closing formulas in 2018. They went through Arodys Vizcaino, A.J. Minter, Luke Jackson, Shane Greene and Melancon. For most of the season, the ninth-inning was a weakness, yet the Braves still won 97 games. 

Melancon will return in 2020 and could still close, but Smith is another very good option if he falters. It would probably make more sense for the Braves to try to use Melancon as the ninth-inning guy to free up Smith for high-leverage spots against lefties in the eighth or even seventh inning.

Why did Smith sign so quickly? For a couple reasons. First, $40 million over three years is a sweet contract for a reliever. He may not have beaten this deal even by waiting. But his representatives also effectively leveraged Thursday's qualifying offer deadline against teams interested in Smith. There was at least a threat that Smith could accept the Giants' one-year, $17.8 million qualifying offer if a better alternative was not presented by Nov. 14. That created more urgency on the Braves' part.

Removing Smith's name from the free-agent relief market further depletes an already light market. The top two potential free-agent relievers were set to be Smith and Aroldis Chapman, but Smith is a Brave in mid-November and Chapman returned to the Yankees on a new deal.

With Smith off the board, the top free-agent reliever might be longtime lefty starter Drew Pomeranz. In 25 appearances with the Brewers after a midseason trade, Pomeranz had a 2.39 ERA and 0.91 WHIP with 45 strikeouts in 26⅓ innings. He's generated a ton of buzz this winter and should also find a lucrative multi-year contract.

Chris Martin, Sergio Romo, Will Harris, Daniel Hudson and Dellin Betances are the best free-agent bullpen arms left. There are also trade candidates like Ken Giles, Raisel Iglesias and maybe Ian Kennedy if the Royals eat most of his remaining $22.5 million.

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Why J.T. Realmuto’s contract extension with the Phillies might take some time

Why J.T. Realmuto’s contract extension with the Phillies might take some time

SCOTTSDALE, Arizona — The Phillies went into this offseason prioritizing a contract extension for All-Star catcher J.T. Realmuto.

Even as the Phils pursue pitching and possibly a third baseman, they are quietly trying to hammer out that extension, according to multiples sources. 

But the extension might not come before the New Year. It might not even come before the opening of spring training.

Don’t panic. Realmuto solidified his status as the top catcher in baseball by winning the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards in 2019. The Phillies very much want to prevent him from becoming a free agent after next season and Realmuto, for months, has professed his affection for the Phillies and Philadelphia as well as his desire to stick around.

“Everything I’ve experienced in Philadelphia has been awesome so I wouldn’t be opposed to spending the rest of my career there,” he said in July. 

In order to preserve some payroll flexibility for the 2020 season, it is possible that the Phillies could sign Realmuto to a one-year contract this winter — he projects to make about $10.5 million in his final arbitration year — then subsequently finalize a separate multi-year extension that would kick in at the start of the 2021 season. The extension could be finalized and announced later this offseason or even in spring training.

Realmuto, who turns 29 in March, is projected to get an extension of four or five years with an average annual value of $20 million or more. By starting the extension in 2021, the AAV of Realmuto’s deal would not count toward the 2020 payroll and thus affect luxury-tax calculations. For tax purposes, the Phillies currently have about $116 million committed to nine players for 2020. Even with Realmuto’s 2020 salary still to be determined and raises due to a number of other players, the Phils do not appear to be in jeopardy of reaching the $208 million tax threshold in 2020 and have the room to pursue top free agents. But pushing Realmuto’s extension back to 2021 would allow for even more room under the tax threshold and that could come in handy this winter or even at the July trade deadline.

After the 2020 season, the Phils will gain some payroll flexibility as Jake Arrieta’s $25 million AAV and David Robertson’s $11.5 million AAV come off the books just as Realmuto’s extension would kick in.

The Phillies have never exceeded the tax threshold. Teams exceeding it for the first time pay 20 percent on every dollar they go over. Last month, owner John Middleton offered his thoughts about exceeding the tax threshold.

“I’m not going to go over the luxury tax so we have a better chance to be the second wild-card team,” Middleton said. “That’s not going to happen. I think you go over the luxury tax when you’re fighting for the World Series. If you have to sign Cliff Lee and that puts you over the tax, you do it. If you have to trade for Roy Halladay and sign him to an extension and that puts you over the tax, you do it. But you don’t do it for a little gain.”

Other than expressing a desire to extend the relationship, Phillies general manager Matt Klentak has steadfastly declined comment on the status of talks with Realmuto on a possible extension. Klentak continued that tack at this week’s GM meetings.

“We love J.T.,” Klentak said. “Every week, it seems like he’s winning a new award. What all of that is doing is confirming what a lot of us have felt for a long time. This guy is the real deal. He can do everything. At some point in this offseason, we will likely talk to him about trying to keep him in the fold beyond his control years and hopefully we’ll line up on something.”

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