Hostile hosts or Welcome Wagon? How will D.C. react as Bryce Harper returns?

Hostile hosts or Welcome Wagon? How will D.C. react as Bryce Harper returns?

Bryce Harper has a 13-year contract with the Phillies. Barring a change in the way Major League Baseball does its scheduling, he could play as many as 117 games in Nationals Park in Washington during that span.

Over time, the place will become just another stop on the trail for Harper.

But not Tuesday night.

Harper will play his 473rd regular season game in the stadium on South Capitol Street.

It will be his first as a visiting player.

“It’ll definitely be different, walking down and not going into the home clubhouse,” Harper said. “It’s something that I’m going to have to get used to. But it will be fun.

“I wish them nothing but the best, all the players in that clubhouse. It’s a great fan base, a great city to live in.”

No player in baseball elicits more love-him, hate-him reaction and emotion than Harper. It has been that way since he slugged and swaggered his way on to the cover of Sports Illustrated at the age of 16. At 26, he remains a superstar talent and he found his superstar payday —$330 million — two hours up the road from Washington in Philadelphia.

Harper won the National League Rookie of the Year award with the Nationals in 2012 and the NL MVP award in 2015. Last summer, Washington fans showered Harper with love when he won the All-Star Home Run derby in what was then his home ballpark.

It’ll be fascinating to see how he is received in his return trip Tuesday night. Will he be treated like a villain who bolted town for big bucks? Or will he be welcomed back as an old friend who has moved on to a new chapter in his life?

The guess here is that Harper won’t feel a whole lot of love. But he can handle it. He’s had a bullseye on his back for more than a decade and it kind of gets his adrenaline flowing.

“I’m sure some cheers, some boos, as well,” Harper said. “It’s part of the game. It’s part of sports. I’ll always remember and cherish all the screaming and yelling and the exciting times that we had there.

“I’m just excited to go back and excited to compete and do what we need to do as a team. I’m a Philadelphia Phillie. I’m excited to be a Phillie. I’m excited to be in the city of Philadelphia and we’re going back there to play a good team in the Nationals and we’re going to do it a couple more times this year and a couple more times in the next 13 years.”

Jake Arrieta predicted a mixed reception for his new teammate.

“Just because of his stature and the type of player he is, the hype around him, deservedly so,” Arrieta said. “Superstar, 26 years old, leaves a team to go to another team in the same division. I think it will be mixed but they should give him a really good ovation for what he was able to do with that organization for the last seven years.”

Harper’s new manager, Gabe Kapler, is eager to see the reception.

“I'm a baseball fan and I love human psychology,” Kapler said. “I love to see how people respond to moments like that, the players, the fans and the cities.”

Kapler, who often sees the bright side of things, believes the Washington fans will be more Welcome Wagon than hostile host.

“Very strong standing ovation,” he predicted. “My reaction is that fans understand players' contributions. And I don't think his contributions to D.C. and the Nationals can be discounted. They are really important for that city and for the history of that franchise.”

In just three games, Harper has already made a big impact on his new club. He has fueled ticket and merchandise sales, he has contributed to a 3-0 start with a pair of homers and four walks, and he leads the league in standing ovations. Not only have the Philadelphia fans shown him love, he’s returned it by bowing to the folks in the right field seats and tossing balls into the stands. It’s been one big love fest.

Harper won’t be feeling any love once Tuesday night’s game starts. The Nationals, like the Phillies, expect to contend in the NL East and they are sending their ace, three-time Cy Young winner Max Scherzer, to the mound. He is 9-2 with a 2.64 ERA in 17 career starts against the Phillies.

The Nats lost two of three to the Mets out of the gate. During Saturday’s game, pockets of Mets fans in the seats at the Nationals Park chanted, “Where is Harper? … Where is Harper?”

He was in Philadelphia, of course. But Tuesday night, he’ll be back in Washington and it should be quite the spectacle.

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Even Bryce Harper’s wife wonders if the Phillies did enough to improve

Even Bryce Harper’s wife wonders if the Phillies did enough to improve

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Even Bryce Harper’s wife wonders if the Phillies did enough to improve this winter.

Harper reported to Phillies spring training Sunday with much less fanfare than he did a year ago. There was no top-of-the-dugout, televised news conference heralding his 13-year, $330-million contract. Instead, he stepped into the hallway outside the clubhouse and took questions from reporters on subjects ranging from his connection with Phillies fans to his personal goals for the coming season. He also weighed in on his old team, the Washington Nationals, winning the World Series, the cheating Houston Astros and his homie, the very available Kris Bryant.

The topic inquiring minds most wanted to discuss was the off-season work done by Phillies management.

A year ago, as he vetted potential free-agent destinations, Harper sought assurances from Phillies managing partner John Middleton that the club would continually bring in the talent needed to win a championship.

This winter, the Phillies made two significant free-agent additions in pitcher Zack Wheeler and shortstop Didi Gregorius. Both were on board by mid-December and the Phillies, despite holes in the pitching staff, made only minor roster tweaks the rest of the off-season.

So, the natural question for Harper as he reported to his second Phillies camp Sunday morning was: Did the team do enough this off-season to win?

“My wife actually asked me that question the other night,” Harper said. “She’s super into it and everything like that.

“You know,” he added. “I believe we did.”

Harper mentioned the addition of Wheeler and the potential upside of having a healthy Jake Arrieta in the rotation and a healthy Seranthony Dominguez in the bullpen. He mentioned the possibility of prospects Spencer Howard, Alec Bohm and Damon Jones having an impact in the rotation – clearly, Harper has done his homework – and of non-roster relievers Drew Storen and Bud Norris helping. He mentioned how good Aaron Nola and Hector Neris have been.

“We’re going to score runs, we were able to do that last year, and if our bullpen can hold and our starters can, as well, I think we’ll be OK,” Harper said.

The Phillies could have done more this winter had they been willing to exceed the luxury-tax threshold of $208 million in payroll. They still might end up over the tax later this season, especially if they are in contention, but for now are in a wait-and-see mode.

One player who would surely help the Phillies now is Bryant, the slugging third baseman from the Chicago Cubs and Harper’s longtime pal from their days growing up together in Las Vegas. Bryant, who will be a free agent after the 2021 season, is on the trading block. Both he and Harper are represented by agent Scott Boras.

Bryant, who will make $18.6 million this season, might be a player that the Phillies would be willing to go over the tax line for, but the Phils and Cubs haven’t been able to line up as trade partners. The Cubs are looking for young pitching and the Phillies, with one of the lowest-rated farm systems in baseball, don’t have much beyond Howard, who is pretty much untouchable.

A year ago, Harper banged the drum for a possible Phillies-Mike Trout union. Alas, however, Trout signed a contract extension with the Angels that will prevent him from becoming a free agent.

Given the opportunity to bang the drum for the Phillies to go get Bryant, Harper exercised restraint and some long-term vision.

“You have to have certain guys on your team that make less money to also have guys that make more money, as well,” Harper said. “Kris, of course, you want an All-Star-caliber player, but we have (third base prospect) Bohm. We have a big-time third baseman we were able to get in the draft.

"Of course, any time you're able to add an All-Star player you're going to want to add an All-Star player. But you have to be able to know that you developed a player in the minor leagues that can also help you at third base, and Bohm could be that guy for us. He could come up and be one of the best third basemen in the second half or whatever it is.

"As a team, you have to have guys like that, that are only making the minimum so you can go and spend at the deadline. If the Cubs aren't where they are, you never know at the half what they're going to be doing. He could be cheaper at [that] point. But I can't give up Spencer Howard and Bohm, and possibly give up our whole future, for a year and a half of KB if we don't sign him to an extension. And I know there's a guy in there that we need to sign to an extension.”

That guy is catcher J.T. Realmuto. The Phillies will look to sign him to a contract extension in the coming weeks so he does not become a free agent after the season. Realmuto could look to top Joe Mauer’s annual salary of $23 million, a record for a catcher.

“I think having a guy like J.T. for the next six years would help us,” Harper said.

As for other matters that Harper touched on:

Personal goals

“Just hitting for average. What did I hit, .260 last year? I think get my average back up and get my on-base back up, get to 100 walks. It really bugged me last year when I was at 99 and I didn’t get it. I really pride myself on my on-base and slugging percentage and things like that, so individually at the plate I just want to get better and doing everything I can to help this team win. I want to keep hitting with guys on base because that’s always fun.”

The Nationals winning the World Series

“I watched through the whole Series and I never have before. I’m so happy for those guys over there. I played there for eight years and enjoyed my time with the players, but I’m happy to turn the page and be here in Philly.”

On the cheating Astros

“It’s very tough to see that. But, I think, for me, it’s more the guys that come up for the first time and they’re at the back end of the bullpen and they know it and they get hit or shelled and they’re never coming to the big leagues again because a team had their signs. It’s those guys that I feel bad for.”

On his first year with Philadelphia fans

“It’s funny, in the offseason, all my buddies were like, ‘How’d you like Philly?’ and I was like, ‘Dude, I loved it. Like, it was unbelievable.’ So I think people might look at me and go, ‘Yeah, right, you’re crazy.’ But no, I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed the fans. I enjoyed the people. That blue-collar feel, that blue-collar mentality. They want you to work hard, they hold you accountable and that made me a better player. I can’t thank the fans enough for last year, for really welcoming me and my family. I’m really looking forward to what we have this year and what we can do.”

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Phillies trade left-handed pitcher Tyler Gilbert to Dodgers for outfielder Kyle Garlick

Phillies trade left-handed pitcher Tyler Gilbert to Dodgers for outfielder Kyle Garlick

Trade! OK, maybe not the kind Phillies fans had been waiting on. The Phils acquired corner outfielder Kyle Garlick from the Dodgers on Saturday for left-handed reliever Tyler Gilbert.

Garlick, 28, was designated for assignment by the Dodgers last week. The Phillies made room for him on the 40-man roster by DFA’ing Nick Martini. Martini had been picked up off waivers from Cincy last month.

Garlick went 12 for 48 with four doubles and three homers for the Dodgers in 2019, his lone season in the bigs. He’s a right-handed hitter with power who went deep 82 times while climbing from Single A to Triple A in a crowded Dodgers system from 2016-19.

With the Phillies, Garlick will vie for a spot on the bench. He has a ton of competition. Jay Bruce, Nick Williams and Roman Quinn are on the 40-man roster, and non-roster invitees Logan Forsythe, Josh Harrison, Phil Gosselin, Mikie Mahtook, Matt Szczur, Neil Walker and Ronald Torreyes are also battling for bench jobs. That's 11 players for, at most, four spots, considering the other bench player would be the backup catcher.

Garlick still has two minor league options left, which could provide useful flexibility to the Phillies if they choose to shuttle him back and forth between Triple A and the majors.

Gilbert, the lefty headed to the Dodgers, did not pitch in the majors for the Phillies. He was in camp as a non-roster invitee. He had a 2.83 ERA in 47⅔ innings at Triple A Lehigh Valley last season but found himself behind many other lefty bullpen candidates here.

The Phillies have Adam Morgan, Jose Alvarez, Francisco Liriano, Ranger Suarez, Cole Irvin, Austin Davis and prospects Cristopher Sanchez, Zach Warren, Damon Jones, Kyle Dohy and JoJo Romero in camp. Lots of options to choose from.

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