Phillies firm up meeting with Bryce Harper, continue their pursuit of Manny Machado

Phillies firm up meeting with Bryce Harper, continue their pursuit of Manny Machado

The Phillies have firmed up their face-to-face meeting with free agent Bryce Harper.

A source confirmed a USA Today report that the meeting will take place Saturday in Las Vegas, Harper's hometown.

A contingent of Phillies officials, led by managing partner John Middleton, will make the trip to Las Vegas to meet with Harper and his representative, Scott Boras. In addition to Middleton, the Phillies will be represented by club president Andy MacPhail, general manager Matt Klentak and manager Gabe Kapler.

Phillies officials met with Boras last month at the winter meetings. This will be their first meeting with Harper. One of the matters Phillies officials want to discuss with Harper is his desire to play for the Phillies. Some media reports have suggested that Philadelphia is not high on the slugging outfielder's list of potential destinations. Boras has maintained that Harper always enjoyed his trips to Philadelphia with the Washington Nationals. In 50 career games at Citizens Bank Park, Harper has 14 homers, 32 RBIs and a .930 OPS.

While the Phillies have interest in Harper, they have not made an offer to him and it's unclear if they will. The Phillies remain primarily interested in infielder Manny Machado, the other megastar on this winter's free-agent market. The Phils are currently in negotiations with Machado. The White Sox and Yankees are also in the hunt for Machado. He visited with all three clubs before Christmas.

Though Middleton is on record as saying the Phillies could spend "stupid money" this winter, it remains unlikely that the Phils would sign both Machado and Harper.

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Phillies pitchers facing make-or-break seasons in 2019

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Phillies pitchers facing make-or-break seasons in 2019

Interested in reading something Phillies-related that doesn't pertain to Bryce Harper and Manny Machado?

There are about 40 other players who could make an impact for the Phils in 2019 beyond the two superstars. And several of them are facing crucial, perhaps career-altering seasons.

In no particular order...

Vince Velasquez

It's definitely make-or-break time for Vinny Velo. In his three seasons with the Phillies, Velasquez has a 4.63 ERA and below-average rates of allowing walks and home runs.

The biggest source of frustration with Velasquez has been the high pitch counts and early exits. In his 69 starts as a Phillie, he has averaged 5.05 innings per start.

In 23 of those starts — so exactly one-third of the time — Velasquez hasn't been able to complete five innings. In 39 of the 69 starts, he hasn't completed six.

Velasquez will turn 27 the first week of June. He's no longer a very young starting pitcher with tons of unrealized potential. This is the year he needs to definitively show the Phillies he can go deeper into games and be more than a strikeout artist. 

Velasquez has struck out 381 batters in 350 innings as a Phillie, but this is an era when velocity and strikeouts are more common than ever before. He needs to take a step forward this season, and that step forward would involve getting closer to an average of six innings per start ... if he is indeed in the rotation to open the season.

It's also an important season for Nick Pivetta, but Pivetta is a bit farther along, has more weapons in his arsenal and commands more confidence from Phillies decision-makers.

Hector Neris

Phillies president Andy MacPhail said at the end of the season that the 2018 Phillies were the most inconsistent team he's ever been associated with. 

No player exemplified that in 2018 more than Neris, who had a 6.90 ERA from March 29 until being sent to the minors after his meltdown on June 29. Over those 33 appearances, Neris allowed 11 home runs in 30 innings and his opponents had a .981 OPS. He couldn't command his splitter, and his fastball was being launched with regularity.

Then Neris went down to the minors, regained confidence in the splitter, came back to the majors and was lights-out.

Over his final 20 appearances, Neris had a 2.04 ERA and .172 opponents' batting average. He struck out 35 of the 69 batters he faced.

This isn't a make-or-break season for Neris' MLB longevity but it could be for him as a trustworthy late-inning reliever. Relievers in high-leverage situations simply cannot allow as many home runs as Neris did this past season. So many mistakes cannot be left over the middle of the plate. 

The Phillies have a host of late-inning options next season — Seranthony Dominguez, David Robertson, Pat Neshek, Tommy Hunter, Victor Arano and Neris. If Neris can replicate that second-half success, it would do wonders for the Phillies' bullpen and could keep him in the mix in the years to come.

Neris turns 30 in June and has two years of arbitration eligibility remaining before he becomes a free agent after the 2021 season.

Jerad Eickhoff

Following a season lost to a nerve issue in his wrist/arm, Eickhoff is looking to reestablish himself as a capable major-league starter in 2019.

With the numbness and tingling gone from his right hand, the hope is that Eickhoff and that equalizing curveball can provide quality innings for the Phils. He sure did in 2015 and 2016, when he posted a 3.44 ERA and 1.14 WHIP in 41 starts. 

In those 41 starts, Eickhoff averaged 6.1 innings, struck out 7.8 batters per nine and walked just 2.0. Those are the stats of a low-end No. 2 starter or high-end No. 3. 

Which is exactly what the Phillies need.

Eickhoff's fastball has been a concern through the years. There isn't a ton of bite or movement to it, and at around 90 mph, it gets hammered when it catches too much of the strike zone. Seven times in Eickhoff's career, his fastball has averaged between 92.0 and 92.9 mph in a game. But it's happened just once in his last 47 outings. We will see if a healthier arm and more normal throwing schedule lead to increased velocity.

There is no convincing reason why Eickhoff, who turns 29 the first week of July, cannot be a more reliable starter for the Phillies than Velasquez or Zach Eflin. Eickhoff's curveball is every bit as effective as Velasquez's fastball or Eflin's sinker and probably more so.

He also has the intangible traits that organizations and teammates love — a bulldog mentality, a desire to work and a willingness to hold himself accountable. 

The Phillies need at least one young starter to step up in 2019, especially with how much the division has improved. Not just for five starts in April or a few starts in June, but for a stretch that lasts closer to two months.

Later in the week, we'll take a look at Phillies position players facing equally important 2019 seasons.

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Most likely 'Mystery Team' candidates for Bryce Harper and Manny Machado

Most likely 'Mystery Team' candidates for Bryce Harper and Manny Machado

There is no club — not the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers, Cubs or any other high-roller — that is as aggressive year to year as "Mystery Team."

No matter which star it is available in free agency or trade, Mystery Team always does its due diligence.

And guess what? Last week, when it came out that the Phillies would meet with Bryce Harper Saturday in Vegas and that the Yankees' interest in Manny Machado was more lukewarm than anything, Mystery Team emerged for Machado's services! This couldn't possibly be a move for negotiating power by Machado's representatives, right? No way.

Yet even though the timing was suspicious, Mystery Team can never be counted out. We have seen far too many examples in recent years of a superstar ending up signing or being traded to a team that was not reported to be after him. And it makes some sense because if you have legitimate interest in a star, it's more beneficial in most cases to fly under the radar and make your move at the very end.

Some high-profile recent examples of Mystery Team getting its man:

• Giancarlo Stanton to the Yankees in 2017

• Zack Greinke to the Diamondbacks in 2015

• Robinson Cano to the Mariners in 2013

• Albert Pujols to the Angels in 2011

• Cliff Lee to the Phillies in 2010

These were all surprising announcements. Stanton was linked most heavily to the Giants and Cardinals. Pujols was linked most to the Marlins and Cardinals. Many expected Cano to re-sign with the Yankees and Greinke to re-sign with the Dodgers.

This offseason, the teams most publicly after Harper have been the Phillies, Nationals, White Sox and Dodgers, with those last two teams perceived to be far behind the Phils and Nats in terms of willingness to spend what it takes.

The teams most publicly after Machado have been the Phillies and White Sox, with the Yankees now a distant third.

If one of the two superstars ends up with a team not on those lists, it won't be a complete shock. 

Mystery teams for Harper

The mystery teams to watch out for with Harper are the Cubs and Giants, two teams that have had very quiet offseasons for different reasons. 

The Cubs have been quiet because of all their humongous expenditures in recent years (Yu Darvish, Jason Heyward, Jon Lester, etc.) and upcoming deals that will need to be done (Kris Bryant).

The Giants have been quiet because they're already running a high payroll, are not close to being the best team in the NL West, and have a weak farm system.

But Harper has made clear in the past his affinity for both cities, Chicago and San Fran. And quite obviously, he'd be a coup for either team, if they meet his price tag. 

Don't completely count out the Astros, either. They reportedly tried hard to acquire Harper ahead of the 2018 trade deadline. They already have plenty of outfielders (George Springer, Michael Brantley, Josh Reddick, Jake Marisnick and Tony Kemp) but Harper is the caliber of player who supersedes need.

Mystery teams for Machado

The Yankees have become such an afterthought over the last two weeks that they've gained Mystery Team status for Machado. Many viewed the signing of second baseman D.J. LeMahieu as the final sign that the Yankees were moving on from the thought of signing Machado. Their infield is crowded with LeMahieu and Gleyber Torres capable of playing second base, Didi Gregorius (when healthy), Torres and Troy Tulowitzki capable of playing shortstop and Miguel Andujar at third base.

But the Yankees have tried all offseason to trade Andujar, who is a below-average defender and may never replicate his offensive success of 2018. So far, no dice. If the Yankees find the right return for Andujar, signing Machado again becomes a real possibility.

The Cardinals, prior to acquiring Paul Goldschmidt, seemed like a contender for Machado. But you don't trade for Goldschmidt to not re-sign him at season's end, and it's unlikely St. Louis commits huge money to both. 

Quite frankly, there just aren't many logical competitors for Machado's services at this point after the Phillies, White Sox and possibly the Yankees.

So many teams just aren't trying to win in 2019 or don't have the money: Orioles, Indians, Tigers, Royals, Twins, Mariners, Rays, Rangers, Blue Jays, D-backs, Reds, Marlins, Pirates. That's nearly half the league.

A dark, dark horse for Machado would be the Padres, who are committed to improving and currently have no starting third baseman. 

Just keep these possibilities in the back of your mind because the "mystery team" thing happens with surprising regularity.

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