When the Phillies were wooing Bryce Harper two winters ago, they made assurances to him that they were in it to win it.
Harper is two seasons into a 13-year, $330-million contract and the Phillies have yet to make the playoffs with him in red pinstripes.
And now, his favorite teammate and baseball BFF, J.T. Realmuto, is a free agent, looking for a big payday in an industry that has taken a major hit in revenues because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Harper spent the summer campaigning — sometimes playfully, sometimes forcefully, always with a purpose — for the Phillies to re-sign Realmuto and the general feeling is he’s not going to be happy if they don’t.
We might not hear from Harper until Realmuto is back with the Phillies or signs with another team.
But we did hear from Harper’s agent, Scott Boras, on Tuesday night. With the winter meetings having been canceled because of the pandemic this year, Boras held his annual fireside chat with reporters from all around the country via Zoom video.
And when voices were unmuted in Philadelphia, all anyone wanted to know about was how Harper, who spread out the length of his contract so the Phils could remain active in pursuing top free agents, would take it if the team was unable to re-sign Realmuto.
Boras, always the smooth operator, did not blink.
He praised the Phillies’ commitment to winning and indicated that he expected it to continue under owner John Middleton, the man who personally recruited Harper to Philadelphia, and Dave Dombrowski, who was hired last week as the team’s new president of baseball operations.
“I think that in fairness to what Bryce and John talked about when he came to Philadelphia was there was an owner committed to winning and an owner pursuing winning,” Boras said. “And you have to admit that I don’t think you play the game of hiring a general manager who is known for World Series hopscotch because everywhere he goes he’s there to compete and win and has done so.
“So, I don’t think you hire a GM of that nature and capacity as David is without the intention and focus on winning today. And, certainly, last year, the Phillies made a major commitment in the free-agent market. Obviously, Bryce, like any player who is a franchise core of the team, wants his club to do what they can to advance as aggressively to give them the greatest weapons to compete for a championship.”
The Phillies carried a payroll over $205 million (pre-pandemic) last year. That number is expected to come down after the club says it lost in the neighborhood of $140 million in revenues last season. But the Phils are not entering a rebuild. Dombrowski has led teams to the World Series four times and won two of them. No way he takes the Phillies job to preside over a rebuild. And no way the Phils spend $20 million on a head of baseball operations if they’re about to embark on a rebuild.
Hence, Boras’ confidence that the Phils are still in it to win it, just like they told his star client two winters ago.
“When you hire Dave at this point of his career and with his history that everywhere he’s gone he’s dealt with an owner, in Detroit and Boston, that has been really supportive in the advancement of creating a World Series caliber club and they’ve been successful in doing so.”
The Phillies are facing some competition for Realmuto, likely from the Nationals, Blue Jays, Yankees, Astros and Angels — and there could be more for the player widely referred to as the best catcher in baseball.
Negotiations with Realmuto’s camp are now in Dombrowski’s experienced hands, but the final decision on whether to meet his price will be made at the ownership level. There are still miles to go before this drama is resolved — and you can bet Bryce Harper is watching closely.