Jayson Werth always had a hunch his pal Bryce Harper would end up a Phillie

Jayson Werth always had a hunch his pal Bryce Harper would end up a Phillie

CLEARWATER, Fla. — On the one-year anniversary of his decision to join the Phillies, Bryce Harper received a visit from an old friend Friday. 

The visitor did not need directions to the Phillies' clubhouse. Jayson Werth spent four seasons with the Phils and helped the team win the World Series in 2008 before moving on to Washington, where he played with Harper for six seasons.

Werth became a mentor to Harper in Washington and as Harper's service-time clock ticked toward free agency, Werth always believed there was a chance his friend would find his way to Philadelphia.

"I always thought this would be a possible destination for him, even way back when, for a bunch of reasons," Werth said. "Kind of where the team was, the money was right, the owner was right, the town's right.

"But more than anything else," Werth added with widening eyes, "Citizens Bank Park is just an awesome place to hit. We always talked about that.

"I don't want people to think I was pushing him there. As players, you just have those conversations. We talked about every stadium while we were stretching in the outfield, while we were on airplanes. I couldn't even figure out how many hours I spent talking to this kid, so stuff like that comes up."

In his seven seasons with the Nationals from 2011 to 2017, Werth tormented the Phillies by hitting .291 with a .922 OPS, 15 homers and 45 RBIs in 52 games.

Werth's 16 career homers in Citizens Bank Park — he hit one as a member of the Dodgers — are second-most at the park by a visiting hitter. David Wright of the New York Mets hit 22 in the park.

Harper hit .260 with an .882 OPS, 35 homers and 114 RBIs in his first season with the Phillies last year. He had a .939 OPS, 20 homers and 63 RBIs at home.

Werth had a love-hate relationship with Phillies fans. They mostly loved him when he wore the red pinstripes and mostly rode him when he moved on to Washington.

He laughs about it now.

"As bad as they can be, they can also be really good," Werth said. "I took it with a grain of salt. It was kind of fun. I was getting booed off the field and at the same time, I was probably playing my best baseball every game I was there. So it was good. It raises everything."

By now Philadelphia fans are familiar with Harper's fiery, hair-flying style of play.

"I always thought that would be something Philadelphia would love," Werth said.

Werth retired in 2018 so both he and Harper were gone from Washington when the Nationals, after failing to make it past the Division Series four times in seven years, finally won the World Series last fall.

Harper watched the entire World Series on television and was thrilled for his old friends.

Werth actually attended the World Series games in Washington and was in attendance for the Nats' Game 7 clincher in Houston.

He felt he had to be.

"I was looking for closure," he said. "It felt like it closed the book on my career, like mission accomplished, job well done. 

"I signed there when nobody wanted anything to do with that place. Harper was a first-round pick when they were coming off 100-loss seasons. Me, Bryce, Ian Desmond, Ryan Zimmerman and a bunch of other guys in 2011 and 2012 kind of turned the franchise around and the fruits of that labor were ripe for the picking last year, finally. So I was elated for those guys and the owners, the front office, (GM) Mike Rizzo, the whole thing."

Werth did not visit the victorious Washington clubhouse after Game 7.

"That wasn't for me," he said. "It was for those guys."

Harper is entering the second season of a 13-year, $330-million contract with the Phillies. The Phillies are banking on him leading the club to a World Series title one of these years.

It's something Harper, a former National League Rookie of the Year and MVP, badly wants.

"He wants to win," Werth said. "He's got everything. There's really not much on the list for him except that.

"He's the type of kid that grew up wanting to be a Hall of Famer. Most kids grow up wanting to be big leaguers. He grew up wanting to be a Hall of Famer. The ring, winning a championship, the parade, all that stuff comes with it. That's not a stretch for me to think those are things he wants."

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Stephen Strasburg got how much? Good thing Phillies signed Zack Wheeler when they did

Stephen Strasburg got how much? Good thing Phillies signed Zack Wheeler when they did

Good thing the Phillies signed Zack Wheeler when they did.

Stephen Strasburg, who entered the offseason as the No. 2 starting pitcher in free agency behind Gerrit Cole and ahead of Wheeler, is returning to the Nationals on a massive seven-year, $245 million contract, according to ESPN's Jeff Passan.

As historically good as Strasburg was in October, that is an insane number for him. He will turn 32 midway through the first of the seven years. He has made 30 starts in just three of nine seasons and reached 200 innings twice. He was more durable than ever in 2019 and, boy, did he cash in because of it. 

Two seasons ago, in 2018, Strasburg made 22 starts with a 3.74 ERA. Had he had that type of season in 2019, he probably wouldn't have even opted out of the remaining three years and $75 million to find this next payday.

Good for him. But also good for the Phillies in agreeing with Wheeler five days before the Nats retained Strasburg. Because if Wheeler was still on the board today, that number is at least $20 million higher and maybe more. Would a team go to $140 million for Wheeler? What about $160 million? Think about how many free agents the White Sox have struck out on in recent years. Wouldn't they have been likely to up their offer one more time if Wheeler was still out there to see what Strasburg signed for?

Strasburg is a great pitcher, don't get it twisted. He proved in 2019 that he can be the most reliable and important arm in the league when the pressure is at its peak. But forget Year 6, by Year 3 or 4 of this deal, the Nationals could be regretting it mightily.

And if this is what it took to sign Strasburg, Gerrit Cole is even more likely to approach $300 million.

There has been much more offseason activity leaguewide than there was at this point a year ago. The five best remaining free agents are Cole, Anthony Rendon, Josh Donaldson, Madison Bumgarner and Hyun-Jin Ryu. The next three would be Nick Castellanos, Didi Gregorius, Marcell Ozuna and then you're getting into back-end-rotation types.

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Phillies free-agent target: Stephen Strasburg

Phillies free-agent target: Stephen Strasburg

Leading up to baseball’s winter meetings, we will take a daily look at some of the game’s top free agents and how they could potentially impact the Phillies.

Today, we check in on someone who has tormented the Phillies for years, power-armed right-hander Stephen Strasburg.

The vitals

Strasburg became a Washington Nationals building block when that team selected him first overall in the 2009 draft. A year later, the Nats picked Bryce Harper No. 1 overall.

Strasburg’s talent has never been in dispute. He complements a power fastball with a killer arsenal of off-speed pitches. His issue has always been staying healthy.

In 2019, however, health was not an issue for Strasburg. He stayed on the field, made 33 starts and led the National League in innings (209) and wins (18). He followed that up with 36⅓ innings, 47 strikeouts (to four walks) and a 1.98 ERA in a postseason run that culminated with the Nationals’ winning the World Series. Strasburg was MVP.

Strasburg’s good health and strong season came at an opportune time as the 31-year-old had the right to opt out of the final four years of his seven-year contract and become a free agent. He walked away from $100 million but will surely cash a larger paycheck as he probably ranks second behind Gerrit Cole among pitchers on this free-agent market.

Why he fits

The Phillies say it's time to win and they're in need of a major upgrade in starting pitching. They need proven help at the back end of the rotation and a major difference maker at the top end. Strasburg would be an excellent addition to the top of the rotation, where he could pair with (and take some pressure off) Aaron Nola. The Phillies have already had contact with Strasburg’s agent, Scott Boras, this offseason. Boras represents several elite free agents, including Cole, and you can be sure the Phils have discussed all of them with him.

And another thing: If you can’t beat him, sign him. Strasburg is 14-2 with a 2.58 ERA and a 0.949 WHIP in 27 career starts against the Phillies. He is also 6-0 with a 2.11 ERA in 12 starts at Citizens Bank Park.

Why he doesn’t fit

Well, there’s the health history. Strasburg had Tommy John surgery early in his career and he’s spent time on the injured list in 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018 with neck, elbow, back, shoulder and oblique issues. That could give the Phillies some pause — they’ve been burned by injuries to free-agent pitchers in the past — but probably not enough to dissuade them from making a run at Strasburg. The Phils are pretty desperate for pitching and there’s immense pressure on the club to win now. 

Then there’s the matter of the incumbent Washington Nationals, who would like to keep Strasburg. They were already on the hook for four more years and $100 million. They could probably sweeten that by, say, $75 million, and retain the World Series MVP. In fact, with third baseman Anthony Rendon, yet another Boras guy, possibly headed out of the town, the Nats could be under some pressure to do that as they preserve what was the key to their World Series charge — their starting pitching staff.

The price tag

Strasburg was to average $25 million over the next four seasons. He’s coming off a season of health, dominance and a World Series MVP. With so many teams needing elite pitching, a six-year deal worth $180 million could be the ticket.

Scout’s take

“He’s a top of the rotation guy when he’s on the field like he was in 2014 and 2019. In other years, he’s missed a lot of starts with injuries and that has to be a concern as he gets older. But he’s always won games and that’s what it’s all about.”

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