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:
“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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