Phillies — Is This Offseason ‘Harper or Bust?’

The Phillies have been in Clearwater for 8 days, and Bryce Harper remains a free agent. The delay in his signing a contract was anticipated, but to hold out until February 21st is beyond the pale.

Manny Machado finally inked a deal with San Diego for $300 million, and if it weren’t for Scott Boras it’s likely that Harper would have signed by now as well.

The Phillies continue to be the clear favorites to land Harper, but that hasn’t stopped fans from imagining a reality where they miss out on the former MVP, and wondering: ‘does that make this offseason a failure?’

The simple answer to that question is no, but it’s a little more complicated than that. To start, superstar players like Harper and Machado rarely hit free agency, and never in the history of baseball has there been so few bidders willing to compete for said stars. In fact, I’m not sure that there have ever been conditions as favorable to landing a franchise player as the current situation the Phillies are in.

In that context, how is this not a failure?

At the very least it’s a failure in relation to our expectations. John Middleton’s talk of spending “stupid money” has haunted the team all winter long. While fans and pundits have been quick to echo those comments in the absence of big spending, Scott Boras fully intends to ride those words straight to the bank—if that wasn’t obvious back then, it is now.

The comparison that I’ve often made has been to the Sixers’ offseason, and Brett Brown’s talk of “star-hunting” that never came to be. While the offseason was by and large dubbed a failure, that was a clear product of high expectations set by Brown, instead of a logical analysis of the Sixers actual chances—which would have concluded that the Sixers landing a Kawhi, PG, or LeBron was always unlikely.

But that’s where the Phillies current situation differs. “Stupid money” comments aside, the Phillies were always going to be viewed as heavy favorites for one of Harper or Machado. No other team had the incentive, or the resources to pay $300+ million for a superstar—the Sixers never had such a favorable playing field. The point being: expectations of LeBron and Kawhi were artificial, essentially blown out of proportion by Brown. Expectations of Harper or Machado, on the other hand, are 100% warranted.

In fairness, if we’re comparing the Phils’ offseason to the Sixers’ then it should be noted that our reaction to their failure to land a superstar was short-sighted and wrong. The front office practiced patience and then delivered when the next round of opportunities presented themselves—first with Jimmy Butler, then Tobias Harris.

In light of that, we should be willing to afford the Phillies some leeway here. The trade deadline in baseball is the most lucrative of any major sport, by far. And while it would mean giving up prospects and cap space—as opposed to just cap space for Harper—it’s a safe bet that there will be a few bats on the trade market who can take our lineup over the top.

If Harper decides that Philly isn’t for him, or if his financial expectations are too rich, then so be it. That hole can, and will be filled—let’s not be pressured into thinking that has to happen now.

It’s also worth mentioning the moves that the front office has already made. While there were additions to an already stellar pitching staff, the team was proactive in shaping a new offense for 2019.

As of now, here are the three offensive changes from last year:

2018 OPS. 2019 OPS.* +/-
Jorge Alfaro .731  —> JT Realmuto .825 + .094
Scott Kingery .605  —> Jean Segura .755 + .150
Carlos Santana .766  —> Andrew McCutchen .792 + .026

*2018 numbers

The combined OPS of the starting eight positions players from last year: .741

The combined OPS of the projected starting eight for 2019 (2018 stats): .775

Those numbers plainly show that we can expect a tangible improvement in offensive production—Harper or no Harper. Realmuto-Hoskins will be the best duo in the middle of our order since Utley-Howard, and McCutchen and Segura will provide stability and consistency that the lineup has lacked.

There was a time when Herrera and Franco were our two best bats, and now there’s a real chance that they’ll be hitting 7th and 8th in 2019. Viewed that way, it’s hard not to ignore the potential of this offense as currently constructed.

Additionally, all three of the changes will positively impact our defense. Hoskins is an improvement over Santana at first, McCutchen is a big step up from Hoskins in left, Segura is an easy improvement over Kingery, and Realmuto is a clear upgrade over Alfaro at catcher.

These moves, on top of David Robertson bolstering the bullpen, and any “plan B” additions to Harper (possibly Kuechel or Kimbrel), mean the Phillies will trot out an Opening Day lineup that is clearly more talented than it was a season ago.

Through that lens, it’s hard to characterize this offseason as a failure—but considering the overwhelmingly friendly circumstances that we’ve been dealt, and the reckless promise of “stupid money,” it would be hard to blame anyone for describing this offseason as ‘Harper or Bust.’

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