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Phillies risk wasting Bryce Harper's prime if they don't improve

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As baseball's offseason takes shape, we will take a look at each player on the Phillies 2020 roster and where they fit in the future. We'll go through the roster by uniform number, lowest to highest for position players, highest to lowest for pitchers, and alternate daily.

Today: Right fielder Bryce Harper

Career rundown

He’s made six All-Star teams, won an MVP award and a home run title – all before his 28th birthday. In nine seasons, he has 232 home runs and a .900 OPS. He’s on a Hall of Fame track. He’s one of the game’s most recognizable and marketable talents. His Phillies jersey was the No. 3 seller in MLB in 2020 and No. 2 in 2019. Still missing from his resume is a strong postseason entry. He's played on clubs that did not get past the first round in four postseasons in Washington and two in Philadelphia that have collapsed down the stretch.

How he became a Phillie

Ever since he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated at age 16, Harper seemed destined to land the richest contract in the history of the game and he did that – albeit briefly -- when he signed a 13-year, $330-million deal with the Phillies in spring training 2019. He has since been passed by Mike Trout and Mookie Betts.

2020 season

It was a tale of two seasons for Harper. He started off like a wrecking ball and was hitting .343 with a .714 slugging percentage through August 22. Those were the sixth- and second-best marks in the majors at that point.

 

The Phils were treading water in the standings on August 22. After a fifth straight loss dropped them to 9-14, Harper said the club needed to do something crazy like win nine of 10 games or its season was going to slip away. The Phils responded by winning 10 of 11 and rose all the way to second place. Finishing there would have put them in the playoffs for the first time since 2011.

The Phils could not maintain that place in the standings. After winning 10 of 11, they lost 17 of their final 26 to finish four games under .500 and out of the playoffs.

After his hot start, Harper tailed off over the final month. He hit just .225 and slugged just .442 after August 22.

Phillies hitting coach Joe Dillon said Harper was trying to do too much and swinging at too many pitches out of the strike zone down the stretch. It was also revealed that Harper injured his lower back right around the time he challenged the team in August. Teammate J.T. Realmuto revealed that Harper was hurting more than he let on. 

Whatever the reason, Harper’s dropoff in production hurt the team down the stretch, especially with Realmuto and Rhys Hoskins missing significant time over the final two-plus weeks with injuries.

Despite the bad back and the decline in production overt the final month, Harper did hit .268 with 13 homers, 33 RBIs and a .962 OPS, which was eight-best in the NL. He led the majors with 49 walks and was fifth in on-base percentage at .420. 

What lies ahead

Harper has 11 more seasons remaining in red pinstripes, taking him through 2031. The only way the Phillies’ investment in him pays off is with multiple, lengthy trips to the postseason and with at least one of them ending with a trip down Broad Street.

With another year gone from Harper’s prime, management has to give the investment a chance to pay off by improving the team’s pitching and filling other holes, one of which could end up being behind the plate where Realmuto could depart for a megabucks free-agent contract. Harper is president and director of promotions in the Realmuto Fan Club. In word and action, he’s been extremely outspoken in his desire to keep Realmuto and has publicly reminded the team that he agreed to stretch out his contract so it could continue to sign other top free agents.

Will the relationship between Harper and the Phillies take a sour turn if Realmuto isn’t back? And how will that manifest itself in the clubhouse and on the field in 2021?

Time will tell.