Phillies salvage rebuilding effort with Bryce Harper signing


The Phillies had, by most standards, a terrific offseason entering the final day of February. GM Matt Klentak acquired catcher J.T. Realmuto and shortstop Jean Segura via trade and signed free agent outfielder Andrew McCutchen and reliever David Robertson. Last season, the Phillies went 80-82, finishing below .500 due to a second-half swoon. The club, however, needed Bryce Harper to justify the rebuild, especially with Manny Machado off the market. They finally got him after months of consternation, inking Harper to a 13-year, $330 million contract on Thursday.

Baseball Prospectus’ forecasting system PECOTA pegged the pre-Harper Phillies for an 85-77 record, good for a third-place tie with the Braves in the NL East. While five wins is a non-negligible improvement, it is also not a position in which the Phillies’ front office should have felt comfortable. To be an 85-win team is to teeter on the edge of contention, to challenge for a division title but ultimately settle for one of the two Wild Card slots, in which case a coin flip — in essence — determines one’s progression deeper into the playoffs. Teams have taken an all-or-nothing approach to roster construction in recent years, recognizing that investing resources into an 85-win team is a risky endeavor. Why not suffer through a few 60- and 70-win seasons in order to eventually build up to a 95- or 100-win roster? That’s what the Cubs and Astros have famously done in recent years, and that’s what the Phillies have been trying to do.

If the Phillies opened up the 2019 regular season without Machado or Harper, their entire rebuilding effort would have been a waste. Sure, in a world without Harper in a Phillies uniform, Odúbel Herrera could have bounced back into All-Star form, Nick Pivetta and Jerad Eickhoff could have finally reached their potential, and the entire defense could have taken a huge step forward to right the wrongs of last year, pushing the Phillies towards a division title. But the rest of the division got better this offseason along with the Phillies and they have fewer unknowns. The Mets added Robinson Canó, Edwin Díaz, Jed Lowrie, Wilson Ramos, and Jeurys Familia. The Nationals added Patrick Corbin, Brian Dozier, Aníbal Sánchez, and Kyle Barraclough. The Braves added Josh Donaldson to the young and talented roster that won the NL East in 2018. Despite all of that, the addition of Harper will arguably make the Phillies favorites in the NL East.

This is not to say the Phillies don’t still have problems, but Harper’s presence will make an impact right away even from a non-production-based perspective. Herrera and Rhys Hoskins won’t have to carry the team on their backs the way they did at times over the last three years. It’s not as big a deal if Scott Kingery still doesn’t find his footing against major league competition. Pivetta, Eickhoff, and Vince Velasquez having off-nights won’t be a death sentence because Harper will save their hides with a go-ahead two-run double or a home run late in the game sometimes. In short, it gives the young players more room to be flawed players and to work on improving out of the spotlight.

Perhaps most importantly for the franchise, the Phillies’ front office maintains credibility with fans by signing Harper. Owner John Middleton kicked off the offseason by proclaiming to Bob Nightengale of USA TODAY Sports, “We’re going into this expecting to spend money, and maybe even be a little bit stupid about it.” As a result, missing out on both Machado and Harper would have been criminal. The Phillies cut payroll significantly during its rebuilding effort specifically for this once-in-a-generation free agent market. We won’t see players with the combination of youth and talent on the free agent market in the near future, especially since teams have gotten in the habit of locking up their young stars to long-term extensions well before they’re able to test free agency. The Phillies ensured they won’t have to cross their fingers and hope Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, and Jacob deGrom make it to free agency. Fans can confidently secure their season tickets knowing they will be paying to see a competitive team, ostensibly for the next decade.

This doesn’t get said enough, but Harper is only 26 years old. He is younger than Realmuto, Segura, Herrera, César Hernández, Maikel Franco, and Vince Velasquez, who are all considered part of the Phillies’ core now. And Harper might not have even hit his peak yet. The Phillies will get at least three or four years of what is generally considered a player’s prime, and who knows how quickly Harper’s skill set wanes once he hits his 30’s. There has not been a better bet in free agency since, arguably, Álex Rodríguez. Harper will now be part of a terrific Phillies roster that should contend for years to come. Kudos to the Phillies for signing a superstar player and living up their promises.

Straight-away center field will be 385 feet at London Stadium

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Marley Rivera of ESPN has a story about some of the on-field and in-game entertainment, as well as some aspects of the field conditions, for this weekend’s London Series.

The fun stuff: a mascot race, not unlike the Sausage Race at Miller Park or the President’s race at Nationals Park. The mascots for London: Winston Churchill, Freddie Mercury, Henry VIII and the Loch Ness Monster. I suppose that’s OK but, frankly, I’d go with Roger Bannister, Shakespeare, Charles Darwin and Guy Fawkes. Of course no one asks me these things.

There will also be a “Beat the Streak”-style race which had better use the theme to “Chariots of Fire” or else what the heck are we even doing here.

They’ve also taught ushers and various volunteers who will be on-site to sing “Take me out to the ballgame,” which is a pretty good idea given how important that is to baseball. As a cultural exchange, I think some major league team should start using “Vindaloo” by Fat Les during the seventh inning stretch here. It’s a banger. It also seems to capture England a bit more accurately than, say, “Downton Abbey” or “The Crown.”

That’s all good fun I suppose. But here’s some stuff that actually affects the game:

The end result will have some interesting dimensions. The field will be 330 feet down each foul line, and it will have a distance of 385 feet to center field, which will feature a 16-foot wall. Cook also said it would have an expanded, “Oakland-like” foul territory, referencing the Athletics’ Oakland Coliseum expanse.

Those dimensions are unavoidable given that the square peg that is a baseball field is being shoved into the round hole that is a soccer stadium. As Murray Cook, MLB’s senior field coordinator tells Rivera, that sort of thing, while perhaps less than ideal, is at least in keeping with baseball’s strong tradition of irregular field conditions. It will, however, be one of the shortest dead center distances in baseball history.

Oh, and then there’s this:

Protective netting was also an important issue addressed when building the ballpark, with Cook stressing that his team has implemented netting that “is the largest you’ll ever see in any major league ballpark.”

[Craig makes a mental note to bookmark this for the next time MLB says it won’t mandate extended netting in the U.S. because doing so is too difficult]