Phillies

Despite rumors, Bryce Harper has no issues playing in Philly

Despite rumors, Bryce Harper has no issues playing in Philly

CLEARWATER, Fla. — It's time to address longstanding rumors that Bryce Harper does not want to play in Philadelphia.

Surely, you've heard them. They have hovered all winter like a pesky fruit fly around a rotting banana, and they continue to linger even as the Phillies ramp up their pursuit of the free-agent slugger.

Are the rumors true?

"No," a person close to the free-agent slugger told us this week.

Harper, the person said, has no aversion to playing in Philadelphia. He is familiar with the city after visiting it three times a year with the Washington Nationals over the last seven seasons and he likes hitting in Citizens Bank Park, where he has a .930 OPS, 14 homers and 32 RBIs in 50 career games.

Now, if Harper were able to write his own storybook script, he may lean toward signing with a California-based club like the Dodgers. He is from Las Vegas and would value playing close to home. In glitzy Los Angeles, he could also be the LeBron James of baseball.

The Dodgers have had interest in Harper in the past, but it is not clear if they are still a player. The San Francisco Giants have interest, but it is not clear if they would meet Harper's price tag — which is likely more than the $325 million that Giancarlo Stanton is guaranteed in his deal. The Nationals remain an X-factor — are they in or out? Some reports say they are out, but Harper's agent Scott Boras has had success selling deals to Washington ownership in the past. There may be a mystery team or two.

The Phillies, spurned by Manny Machado earlier this week, are in rock-solid, full-speed-ahead pursuit of Harper and there is enormous public pressure to bring him to Philadelphia.

According to the aforementioned person who is close to him, Harper would have no qualms coming to Philadelphia if the Phillies win these sweepstakes. The person said that Harper has gotten good reports on the city and the fans from current and former Phillies with whom he maintains friendships.

Money will still be the driving force in this deal. Concerns over destination appear to be overblown.

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Zack Wheeler's floor a huge boost for Phillies, but that ceiling ...

Zack Wheeler's floor a huge boost for Phillies, but that ceiling ...

For long stretches in each of the last two seasons, Zack Wheeler was every bit as effective as Aaron Nola.

Wheeler had four terrific months in 2018, posting a 2.52 ERA over his final 20 starts beginning on June 1.

In 2019, he found his groove right around midseason, pitching to a 3.04 ERA over his final 16 starts.

When you hear the phrase "untapped potential" in relation to Wheeler, this is what it means. It means that if he can pitch like this a bit more consistently — four good months instead of two — he can be a legitimate ace.

If he can't? Well then, if you trust his stuff and his results the last two years, you're getting no worse than a low-end No. 2 starter. Wheeler has made 60 starts the last two seasons with a 3.65 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, a strikeout per inning and less than a home run per nine.

Those numbers might not jump off the page, but they are impressive when you consider the surge in home runs in 2019 and especially so when considering his workload.

Wheeler is one of only 12 pitchers to reach 375 combined innings the last two seasons. The others are Jacob deGrom, Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Max Scherzer, Zack Greinke, Aaron Nola, Patrick Corbin, Trevor Bauer, Jose Berrios, Miles Mikolas and Mike Leake.

In 2019, Wheeler made 18 quality starts (at least six innings with three earned runs or fewer). Nola also made 18. Zach Eflin had 14, Jake Arrieta had 10 and no other Phillie was in double-digits.

When Nola did not start a game for the Phillies in 2019, they received a quality start 31 percent of the time — less than once every three games.

Wheeler obviously helps with that. Think back to late last season when the Phillies could generate no momentum and had such a smaller chance to win when anyone was on the mound other than their ace. Wheeler changes that. He offers more of a chance for series wins, sweeps, actual winning streaks.

He also brings velocity, something the Phillies' rotation has sorely lacked for years. Wheeler's four-seam fastball averaged a career-best 96.7 mph last season, fourth-fastest in the majors behind Noah Syndergaard, Cole and deGrom.

The Phillies have never had a starting pitcher throw at least 100 innings in a season and average better than 95 mph with his fastball. Nick Pivetta and Vince Velasquez came the closest. Wheeler has done it comfortably in back-to-back seasons.

Velocity is not the only thing, especially these days when so many have it, but it is obviously still a major part of missing bats and getting outs. Because Wheeler has 3 or 4 mph more on his fastball than Nola, and because he can locate significantly better than Pivetta or Velasquez, he offers the Phillies' rotation a different, much-needed look.

This is not to say Wheeler comes without flaws or concerns. He hasn't yet ripped off a string of strong seasons. Two is a start and the Phillies are banking on it continuing.

He hasn't been a Top 10 Cy Young finisher, though he should have been in '18.

He's never reached 200 innings in a season, though some of that was because of caution the Mets exercised with him.

And Wheeler, despite the velo, has gone through plenty of multi-start stretches where he's been hit hard and doesn't miss many bats, in a way you don't see with the tippy-top guys like Scherzer and deGrom (which Wheeler is not).

He had three starts in a row like that last August and two straight in June.

But Wheeler is as capable of 7 innings, 1 run, 11 strikeouts as any pitcher in either league. When he's on, he can be so, so good. He went at least seven innings 15 times last season and allowed one or no runs in seven of them.

This one addition will not boost the Phillies to 90 wins, but it's the first giant step to another critical offseason.



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At the Yard podcast: Reacting to the huge Zack Wheeler news

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NBCSP

At the Yard podcast: Reacting to the huge Zack Wheeler news

Ricky Bottalico and Corey Seidman react to the big news of the Phillies agreeing to a five-year deal with Zack Wheeler on the latest At The Yard podcast.

They also discuss the possibility of the Phillies signing Didi Gregorius, Cole Hamels heading to the Braves, and much more.

• Initial impressions of the signing
• What the guys like most about Wheeler
• Was this the right price?
• Bittersweet day with Hamels to Braves
• Phillies still need to add another good SP
• One Wheeler concern
• The market for Anthony Rendon



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