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Bryce Harper to the Phillies? Looking at the chances Harper ends up with a division rival

Bryce Harper to the Phillies? Looking at the chances Harper ends up with a division rival

Winter has finally arrived for the Washington Nationals. Bryce Harper has potentially played his final game in a Nationals uniform, and all fans can do over the course of the next few months is play the waiting game. Instead of sitting around twiddling our thumbs, however, we’re going to take a look at some of the major players who will be active in Harper’s free agency this winter.

We’ll do our best to gauge how genuine each team’s interest in the superstar is (spoiler alert: they are all very interested) and try to guess how good their chances are of landing him. 

Bovada updated their odds on Harper’s ultimate landing spot after the regular season ended, and they’ve got the Nationals as the fifth-most likely team for him to (re)join. Number one on that list was the Chicago Cubs. Number two was the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Number three? The Philadelphia Phillies.

The Narrative

Nationals fans aren’t going to want to hear this, but the Phillies are absolutely legitimate contenders for Bryce Harper this offseason. I know, it’s a scary proposition.

The team’s owner, John Middleton, has been itching to spend on a winning ballclub. He’s got hundreds of millions of dollars burning a hole in his pocket (must be nice) and wants to invest in getting the Phillies back on top of the baseball world. This upcoming free agency represents the perfect time to jump back in the water, as two young megastars are on the market in Manny Machado and Harper. And, what do you know, the team’s two worst positions last year were shortstop and right field!

There has been rampant speculation that Middleton would like to go after both Machado and Harper, which is an even more terrifying proposition for the Nats. It’s unlikely to expect Philly to land the two biggest fishes in recent memory, but you can bet your bottom (300 million) dollar(s) that they’ll be in play for at least one of the two studs.

Harper has played well at Citizens Bank Park, the home of the Phillies, in his career. His 14 home runs there are the most he’s hit in any ballpark outside of D.C., though his tOPS+ in Philadelphia is just 104 (essentially, he’s hit about 4% better at Citizens Bank Park than his usual splits everywhere else).

Harper doesn’t have the same personal connections to the city of Philadelphia or the Phillies organization as he does with the Cubs and Dodgers (and obviously the Nationals). In this case, the narrative surrounding this signing would be more about the Phillies announcing themselves to the baseball world as “back.” 

Given their youth, early success last season, talented farm system, and obvious willingness to spend big, it’s an easy narrative to sell to Harper. Plus, the Phillies wear pinstripes, and we know how important that was to a young Bryce.

In reality, if Harper signs with the Phillies, the narrative for the baseball world would focus on the team’s ability to compete immediately, and the narrative for Nats fans would be Harper not just leaving D.C. as he’s entering his prime, but leaving to join their most bitter division rival. It’s safe to say if this ends up happening, there won’t be any Bryce Harper statues in D.C. any time soon. 

The Roster

Of all the teams expected to make a run at Bryce Harper, this one makes the most sense from a roster perspective. There are two sides to that coin: the finances, and the players already on the team. 

From a financial standpoint, Scott Lauber did a nice job breaking down how much the Phillies will actually be able to spend this winter. According to his math, the Phillies have about $69 million committed to six players next season, plus around $38 million set to go to players who are arbitration-eligible.

By all accounts, the organization wants to spend big again now that their rebuild is wrapping up, which means their payrolls in the early part of the decade are probably more informative than recent years.

When competitive, the Phillies were regularly spending $160-170 million, and that was good enough for top five in all of baseball. The average top five salaries in recent years have gone up even from that, meaning we can probably expect them to spend in the $180-200 million range. They may not jump up all the way back to that mark in one year alone, but it’s fair to assume they have more than enough money to commit to Harper both in the short and long term without hamstringing themselves from making other improvements to the roster.

In other words, yes, they can afford to give Harper a record-breaking deal.

From a players standpoint, it makes even more sense. According to Baseball Reference, the Phillies outfield as a unit had a combined WAR of negative-6.7 in 2018, which unsurprisingly was dead last in baseball. Even just looking at right field specifically, Philadelphia was at negative-2.9, half a run worse than any other team.

For the sake of thoroughness, let’s take a look at who will be around in the outfield over the next few years.

Odubel Herrera is the only player signed to a long term contract, as he’s set to be there through at least 2021. Aaron Altherr, Nick Williams, and Rhys Hoskins are all under team control for the next three seasons as well, thanks to limited service time, though Hoskins is the only one of those who looks like a true star. Their current outfield is very reasonably priced, but questions remain as to whether or not it will actually end up any good. Plus, Hoskins’ future may ultimately end up being at first base. I’ll also mention Scott Kingery, who is signed for several seasons at a reasonable deal, but who will play the vast majority of his games in the infield. His versatility is worth pointing out, however.

At the end of the day, the Phillies enter the 2018 offseason with maybe the worst outfield in baseball, and their only potentially great outfielder is likely to move to the infield.

What I’m saying is they have a giant, gaping, Bryce Harper-sized hole in their outfield. 

The Odds

When people ask me where Harper is going, I’m always sure to mention the Cubs as a possibility, in addition to the chance he stays in Washington. The third team I find myself going back to everytime is the Phillies. 
It’s just so obvious of a fit from a personnel standpoint, they’re in the right stage of their rebuild (i.e. at the very end) and are just now entering their contention window, and they have a boatload of money to spend.

There probably isn’t another team in baseball with the same combination of roster need, contention readiness, and financial might, so the only thing keeping the Phillies from being favorites is the perceived comfort and familiarity Harper has elsewhere. 

Really, though, how often do free agents trying to set the record for biggest contract in MLB history find themselves picking a team based on the friends they already have there? The betting favorite should be whoever is willing to give Harper the biggest offer possible, and no one else has the financial flexibility and motivation that the Phillies do.

If anything, Philadelphia’s odds coming in at +550 are too low, and if I was someone who wanted to place some hard-earned cash on Harper’s final destination, it’d be mighty difficult to look elsewhere.

I know, I know, Harper going to the Phillies would be the ultimate dagger for Nats fans. Please don’t shoot the messenger.

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Which National League teams' contention windows are still open?

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Which National League teams' contention windows are still open?

Sports have changed in recent years. In the past, franchises were often content with simply being “in the mix” every year. Going above-.500 was always considered a successful season, and players, coaches, and owners took pride in just winning more than losing.

These days, the only thing that matters (besides making money, of course) in professional sports is winning championships. Teams would (rightfully, I’d argue) rather finish dead last in their sport than somewhere hovering around .500 with no clear room to move up another tier.

In that sense, congratulations Orioles fans!

Organizations like the 76ers in basketball and the Astros and Cubs in baseball have shown a willingness to, ahem, trust the process. A few years with terrible records brings highly touted draft picks which turn into highly affordable young stars.

Baseball has been a little late to the party in embracing this philosophy, but the aforementioned Cubs and Astros did just win World Series titles in 2016 and 2017, respectively. It works. And because it works, teams are more cognizant than ever of just where they stand in relation to the proverbial “contention window.”

With that in mind, let’s take a look at where every National League team stands. The American League is a bit more regimented (the Astros, Indians, Red Sox, and Yankees are going to dominate the AL for at least the next few years), plus the Nats obviously reside in the Senior Circuit, so that’s where we’ll focus. We’ll split the 15 teams into four categories: Window Closed, Window Closing, Window Opening, and Window Open.

Window Closed

Miami Marlins

This one couldn’t have been easier. The Marlins are not only completely bereft of talent, but they aren’t even chock full of prospects on the horizon. Outside of catcher J.T. Realmuto, who almost certainly will get traded at some point, there’s not a single player on this roster who looks like a current or future contributor on a World Series contender.

That’s, uh, not good.

Cincinnati Reds

The Reds are pretty interesting, and I actually considered putting them in “Window Opening.” The talent level isn’t there, but the 67-95 record looks worse thanks to a 3-15 start. Once the team switched to former National manager Jim Riggleman, the offense picked up and became an actual plus for the team.

Additionally, there are a few top prospects coming soon. Nick Senzel is going to be a reliable hitter at the Major League level as soon as next season, and the team has other talented young guys down the line. Taylor Trammell, Hunter Greene, and Jonathan India all look like potential regulars, if not stars. 

They’re probably still a year or two away from really feeling like they have a chance of competing, but this is a team on the cusp of competing.

Pittsburgh Pirates

I honestly expected the Pirates to finish with one of the five worst records in baseball last season, and I have no problem admitting I was wrong. Their hot start certainly didn’t last, as they finished fourth in the NL Central and were just three games over .500, but their team held up better over the course of the season than I expected.

Looking at the roster, there are literally just three guys around for a while who are worth getting excited about: Starling Marte, Chris Archer, and Felipe Vazquez. An outfielder, a decent-but-overrated starter, and a relief pitcher.

I don’t see enough reinforcements on the way to get excited about the future of the team. If they commit to a rebuild, they could turn things around, but for now, the window is closed shut.

Window Closing

Arizona Diamondbacks

The Diamondbacks had their chance to go for it this year and couldn’t quite make it work. They were in on Manny Machado, but after depleting their farm system last season had nothing to offer. Instead, Machado went to the Dodgers, and now Los Angeles is in the World Series and the Diamondbacks ended with 82 wins. 

What made it especially tough for their fans is knowing this era of contention was about to end. A.J. Pollock’s contract is up, and Paul Goldschmidt will be gone after next season, if not sooner thanks to a trade. Breakout ace Patrick Corbin is also a free agent, but the team does have some pitching depth. Unfortunately, their ace is the just-turned-35 Zack Greinke, and Zack Godley and Robbie Ray took steps back last season.

There’s just enough there that they probably won’t completely fall off the cliff yet, but this is a team that has expected to compete in each of the last few springs, and that won’t be the case in 2019.

San Francisco Giants

I was really tempted to place the Giants into the “Window Closed” category. I said it many times all season long, it was a mistake for them to go all in and acquire Andrew McCutchen and Evan Longoria. 

Their 73-89 record speaks for itself. Unfortunately for fans in the Bay area, there aren’t any real actions they can take. For some reason, they are considered one of the eight favorites to land Bryce Harper, but I just don’t see it happening. Thanks to some ill-fated contract extensions, they’re locked into multiple years with guys like Buster Posey, Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford, Longoria, Johnny Cueto, Jeff Samardzija.

Now, that’s a core that’s won a few championships in its day, and it doesn’t include the maybe-healthy Madison Bumgarner, so for that reason they don’t get the fully shut window yet. But it’s coming, and might be here sooner than fans realize.  

Window Opening

Atlanta Braves

This one is pretty obvious. The Braves’ best players are guys like Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna, who spent last season as 21 and 20 years old, respectively. Freddie Freeman is older, but still young enough to help the team win now. 

My only hesitation keeping them out of the “Window Open” category is the general narrative of young teams arriving a year earlier than anticipated. We saw it with the Twins last season. A team is competitive a season or two earlier than everyone expected, and then the following season regression kicks in.

The Braves are clearly on the way up, but let’s wait one more year before declaring their window open.

Philadelphia Phillies

The Phillies, in almost every way, are a less extreme version of the Braves. They also embraced a rebuild, but less emphatically. They also have a slew of top prospects, but none on the level of Acuna. They also competed earlier than expected in 2018, but not as successfully as the Braves.

In that vein, they also are clearly deserving of this category, though maybe not quite as much on the cusp of true contention as Atlanta. This is a team whose window would bust open several more levels if they sign Manny Machado or Bryce Harper.

Colorado Rockies

The Rockies were somewhat difficult to place. On the one hand, they have several talented young position players, led by the undeniable Nolan Arenado. Trevor Story had his post-hype breakout last season, and they maybe kind of sort of finally found some decent pitching? Kyle Freeland was one of the stories of the season, and Jon Gray looks like he could be embarking on a nice career.

On the other hand, D.J. LeMahieu is a free agent, and Arenado is up after next year. Can they re-sign their superstar? That will determine if this placement is foolhardy or optimistic. I believe in their other young talent, and Arenado seems like the type of star to stick in one city for his whole career. Most millenials are headed to Denver, not headed out.

New York Mets

The Mets are a good example of why the category you fall into here is not necessarily representative of the talent level of the roster. To wit, the Mets are clearly not one of the best teams in the National League, but the bulk of their core is still built with young players on the upswing, and enough of those guys have already hit to the point that they can’t really consider themselves rebuilding anymore.

Michael Conforto, Amed Rosario, Jacob deGrom, and Noah Syndergaard are really talented players, the kind of guys who can lead franchises to the World Series if things break the right way.

I’m definitely not saying this is a dark horse contender in 2019 or anything like that. Just that they are (slowly) moving toward their next competitive window.

San Diego Padres

The Padres desperately want to have their window open. They signed Eric Hosmer to a huge deal in the offseason, and they clearly view themselves as closer to contention than not. I’ll give them that they’re on the way, but it appears to be in the distant future.

I considered them for every category other than Window Open, because they have been really bad in recent years, but they also have one of the best farm systems in recent memory. Give it two years, and they may very well be the next Astros/Cubs.

Milwaukee Brewers

I was torn on whether or not the Brewers should consider themselves as the window open or just in the process of opening. They, of course, were just one win away from the World Series this past season, and certainly don’t look like they’re going anywhere anytime soon.
They earned their NLCS shot, but it had more of a Cinderella-type feel than an actual true contender. Similarly to the Braves, this is a young team on the upswing who might have reached their potential earlier than even they thought.

That said, they did add Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich last season, so they clearly believe they are in their window right now. With the likely NL MVP returning and the determination to get to the promised land, who am I to say they’re wrong? This is the pick I’m least sure of.

Window Open

Chicago Cubs

Another easy choice. The Cubs have plenty of talented players on the roster, and just about all of them are either smack dab in the middle of their primes, or at the very least on the cusp. Maybe in a few years they’ll start having to worry about contracts and stability, but for now, this a team whose window is wide open.

In fact, they may actually be trying to force the window even more open in the form of a blockbuster Bryce Harper signing

Los Angeles Dodgers

As I’m writing this, the Dodgers are getting set to face the Red Sox in the 2018 World Series. So, yeah, they are obviously somewhere in contention range. The only question is what will they lose in free agency? And are any players aging out of their primes?

The answer to both hinges on Clayton Kershaw. The southpaw who is the best pitcher since prime Roger Clemens has been jaw-droppingly good his entire career, but has recently started to suffer from regular back injuries, a scary proposition for a position notorious for durability issues. Not to mention the fact that he can opt out of his contract this year should he choose to do so.

Looking at the rest of the roster, Machado will likely leave, but Corey Seager will be returning to health to replace him. They may need a new catcher if they can’t re-sign Yasmani Grandal, but everywhere else either has a young talent on the horizon, a star locked up, or a slew of flexible guys ready to chip in. Plus, this is the richest team in baseball. Like the Yankees, it would take some extreme scenarios for a franchise like this to ever NOT be in contention.

St. Louis Cardinals

The Cardinals are yet another team whose category doesn’t accurately reflect the talent on their roster. St. Louis isn’t quite on the level of the Cubs and Dodgers, but they don’t really have anywhere to go from here. Their young pitching is uber-talented and will keep them in most playoff races in the near future, not to mention hitters like Matt Carpenter and Marcell Ozuna.

The steadiness of this roster, and lack of options to really change things up, is why they’re here. They are competing right now, even if they aren’t completely set up to do so in the era of the superteam.

Washington Nationals

Ahh, the Nationals. I didn’t save them for last because they’re the local team, or for alphabetical reasons. Quite honestly, they were the most difficult franchise for me to place on this list.

It looks like a new era is upon us, especially if Bryce Harper leaves. Even if he sticks around, many of the names and faces fans have become familiar with in recent seasons are headed out the door. So, in that sense, it might seem like the window is closing.

At the same time, Juan Soto’s magnificent career is only just beginning, and Victor Robles looks like a ready-made Harper replacement. The outfield will be good-to-great next season no matter what, and Anthony Rendon is still starring in the infield, with Carter Kieboom coming soon. So that seems like the window is opening. 

Also, Max Scherzer still pitches for the Nats last I checked. Any team with Rendon, Scherzer, and Stephen Strasburg will at the very least have designs on competing. 

So, considering how ready top MLB prospects are to impact playoff races as rookies these days, and how many big name stars the team will employ no matter if a certain number 34 leaves town, it feels like the Nats will still very much be competing in 2019 and beyond. For the sake of fans in the nation’s capital, let’s hope so.

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2018 Nationals Position Review: The Nats have a clear need at catcher​​​​​​​

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2018 Nationals Position Review: The Nats have a clear need at catcher​​​​​​​

One of the Nationals' biggest offseason needs is clearly at the catcher position, where they have no obvious starter under contract and no top prospect waiting in the wings.

Before we look ahead at the future of the position and whether the Nats will address their need with a trade or through free agency, let's look back at the 2018 season that was for Nationals backstops.

2018 Nationals Position Review: Catchers

Matt Wieters

Age: 32
2018 salary: $10.5 million
2018 stats: .251/.315/.410, 76 G, 271 PA, 235 AB, 56 H, 24 R, 8 HR, 30 RBI, 8 2B, 0 3B, 30 BB, 45 SO, 86 OPS+, bWAR 0.6

Wieters was always a short-term fix for the Nationals catcher, but this year he didn't exactly provide the production needed to even serve that purpose. His numbers were a bit better than 2017, his first year in Washington, but Wieters battled injuries, missing two months from mid-May to mid-July with a hamstring strain. 

To Wieters' credit, he finished the season strong. From July 23 to his final game on Sept. 29, Wieters carried a .353 on-base percentage with a .763 OPS. His defense was a mixed bag, but he did rank 10th in MLB in caught stealing percentage (min. 40 GP).

Wieters is expected to be gone this winter and where he goes next will be interesting. He can probably still get another starting catcher job, but not for a good team. Meanwhile, the Nats will go out hoping to find someone much better and younger than Wieters to move forward with.

Spencer Kieboom

Age: 27
2018 salary: Pre-Arb Eligible
2018 stats: .232/.322/.320, 52 G, 143 PA, 125 AB, 29 H, 16 R, 2 HR, 13 RBI, 5 2B, 0 3B, 16 BB, 28 SO, 71 OPS+, bWAR 0.4

Kieboom got the call in May when Wieters went down and got his first extended stint in the majors. He made his debut in 2016, but had just one plate appearance before going back down and then staying in the minors for all of 2017.

Kieboom did a serviceable job considering the circumstances. His caught stealing percentage was fourth in the majors. And offensively, he had some moments. He had seven multi-hit games and had a few stretches where he drew walks in bunches. 

The question for Kieboom is whether he did enough to keep a roster spot next season. He's under team control until 2024, but clearly, the team will seek upgrades at his position. 

Pedro Severino

Age: 25
2018 salary: Pre-Arb Eligible
2018 stats: .168/.254/.247, 70 G, 213 PA, 190 AB, 32 H, 14 R, 2 HR, 15 RBI, 9 2B, 0 3B, 1 SB, 18 BB, 47 SO, 34 OPS+, bWAR -1.1

Severino had played for the Nats in brief stints each of the past three seasons, but like Kieboom he got his first real run in the major leagues this season. He began the year as the backup catcher but was optioned down when Wieters returned in July because Kieboom essentially took his job. Severino then returned in September when rosters expanded.

Severino continued to show flashes this season with his defense and speed on the basepaths relative to his position. But he just didn't get it done at the plate. He couldn't hit for average or power and he doesn't get on-base consistently enough.

Since Kieboom passed him on the depth chart, and given the Nats are likely to add talent at catcher, it's unlikely Severino will enter next season as anything more than Triple-A depth.

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