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.

This Day in Transaction History: Phillies acquire John Kruk from Padres

John Kruk
Bernstein Associates/Getty Images

John Kruk is one of the more underrated hitters in baseball history. Kruk, who is currently a broadcaster for the Phillies, had a 10-year career during which he hit exactly 100 homers, batted exactly .300, and posted an excellent .397 on-base percentage. In baseball history, there are only 32 members of the admittedly arbitrary 100/.300/.395+ club. Kruk is one of only 10 members of the club that played after 1963. The others: Mike Trout, Joey Votto, Todd Helton, Chipper Jones, Manny Ramírez, Frank Thomas, Larry Walker, Edgar Martinez, and Wade Boggs. Of them, five are Hall of Famers. Trout and Votto will be, and Helton and Ramírez should be.

On this day in 1989, the Phillies made a franchise-altering trade, acquiring Kruk along with infielder Randy Ready from the Padres in exchange for outfielder Chris James. The Padres had just swept the Phillies at home and were hoping to jump into the playoff race. They immediately went into a losing skid, but caught fire at the end of the season, finishing 89-73. However, that wasn’t good enough as the Giants won the NL West with a 92-70 record. James was solid for the Padres, posting a .743 OPS with 11 homers and 46 RBI in 87 games.

Kruk had an interesting but brief major league career with the Padres. His roommate, Roy Plummer, was an armed robber. Kruk was completely unaware of this. In spring training of 1988, the FBI informed Kruk of his roommates’ activities. Kruk feared retribution from Plummer and said that the anxiety affected his baseball performance. In 1988, Kruk batted what was for him a poor .241/.369/.362 with nine homers and 44 RBI over 466 plate appearances.

The Phillies didn’t enjoy immediate success upon Kruk’s arrival in 1989. The club finished the season with a losing record and would do the same in the ensuing three seasons. None of it was Kruk’s fault, though: in aggregate, from 1990-92, he hit .303/.393/.459, earning two All-Star nominations. In this span of time, the only other first basemen to hit above .300 were Frank Thomas, Paul Molitor, Hal Morris, and Rafael Palmeiro. The Padres had used Kruk both in the corner outfield and at first base, but the Phillies made him a full-time first baseman, which turned out to be a good move.

In 1993, everything came together for the Phillies and Kruk had what was arguably the greatest season of his career. He hit .316, which was actually seven points below his average the previous year, but he drew 111 walks to push his on-base percentage up to .430. Kruk hit third in the lineup, creating plenty of RBI opportunities for Dave Hollins in the clean-up spot, Darren Daulton at No. 5, and the trio of Jim Eisenreich, Pete Incaviglia, and Wes Chamberlain in the No. 6 spot. The Phillies shocked the world in ’93, winning the NL East by three games over the Expos with a 97-65 record. They then dispatched the Braves in six games in the NLCS to advance to the World Series against the Blue Jays.

Kruk was productive in the NLCS, contributing six hits including a pair of doubles, a triple, a home run, four walks, five RBI, and four runs scored. But he turned things up a notch in the World Series, registering multi-hit performances in the first three games. He would finish the World Series with eight hits in 23 at-bats along with seven walks, four RBI, and four runs scored. The World Series was winnable for the Phillies as they lost a barnburner Game 4 15-14, and of course, dropped the deciding Game 6 on a World Series-clinching walk-off three-run home run by Joe Carter off of Mitch Williams.

1994 was tough on Kruk in many ways. He was diagnosed with testicular cancer in spring training. Knee issues continued to bother him, and then Major League Baseball had a work stoppage. In an abbreviated season, Kruk hit a still-productive .823 OPS. He became a free agent and, when baseball came back, he signed with the White Sox. In the first inning of a July 30 game against the Orioles in ’95, Kruk singled to left field off of Scott Erickson. He reached first base, bowed to the fans, and walked off the field into retirement. Kruk told the media, “The desire to compete at this level is gone. When that happens, it’s time to go.”

Kruk has spent his post-playing days working in sports media as both a broadcaster (Phillies, ESPN nationally) and as a commentator (The Best Damn Sports Show Period, Baseball Tonight). The Phillies inducted him into their Wall of Fame in August 2011. One wonders if Kruk hadn’t been bit by the injury bug, and if there hadn’t been a work stoppage, if he might have been able to accrue some more numbers to have a borderline Hall of Fame case. Regardless, he’ll go down as one of the games’ quietly great hitters.