It was Sept. 12, and the Philadelphia Phillies had just lost to the Washington Nationals, 5-1, in the season finale between the rivals.
Gabe Kapler sat behind a desk atop a stage, the setting for his news conference after home games, and answered a question about ace Aaron Nola.
“His stuff looks good. Their lineup is exceptional. We knew that from the very beginning of the season. It got healthier. And it is deep as possibly can be. Juan Soto is one of the best young players in baseball. Bryce Harper might be the best player in baseball. Zimmerman, Rendon, Eaton …”
Wait, what? Press rewind.
Kapler rarely misses a chance to effusively praise his own players. But there was the Phillies manager, unprompted, endorsing Harper, who just so happened to be weeks from free agency. At the risk of making too much of nine words uttered as part of a more complete thought, it was a moment worth filing away.
Four months later, after meeting with Harper on Saturday in his hometown of Las Vegas, it seems other high-ranking Phillies officials – including owner John Middleton, whose opinion matters the most – hold the megastar outfielder in equal esteem.
It’s no secret that the Phillies covet Manny Machado, the other 26-year-old marquee free agent. Not only did team president Andy MacPhail and general manager Matt Klentak play a part in drafting him for the Baltimore Orioles in 2010, they also made an aggressive bid to trade for him last summer. The Phillies hosted Machado last month at Citizens Bank Park and made at least an opening offer. There’s little denying that Machado has been their highest priority.
By all accounts, though, the meeting with Harper, his wife, Kayla, and agent Scott Boras went well. Maybe it’s all a leverage ploy to land Machado. Or maybe the Phillies really are pivoting to Harper as their top target. At this point, anything is possible.
But there is a case to be made that Harper represents a better fit. A few of the factors:
The lineup fit: Even without Machado, the Phillies’ batting order is decidedly right-handed. Harper hits from the left side and would bring balance to a lineup that could look something like this:
►2B Cesar Hernandez (S)
►RF Harper (L)
►SS Jean Segura (R)
►1B Rhys Hoskins (R)
►LF Andrew McCutchen (R)
►CF Odubel Herrera (L)
►3B Maikel Franco (R)
►C Jorge Alfaro (R)
The plate-approach fit: Kapler admires hitters who see pitches and work the count. Harper saw a career-high 4.14 pitches per plate appearance last season and has a .388 career on-base percentage, sixth among active players with at least 1,000 at-bats.
“One of the things I found most fascinating about him last year was even through the times of his struggles, he still worked an incredible at-bat,” Kapler said in December. “He still worked the pitcher. He still made the opposition uncomfortable. And sometimes he’d end that at-bat with a walk, which I think there’s a lot of value in that. When he’s going good, he’s one of the most difficult players to get out in the game.
“I love the way he plays. I think there’s so much to like about what Bryce Harper brings to the table, his play on the field, and then what he brings to a clubhouse environment.”
The ballpark fit: Few players have a swing better suited for Citizens Bank Park, as the Phillies know all too well.
Harper has hit 14 home runs in South Philly, tied with Lucas Duda and Ryan Zimmerman for the most by an active player who has never played for the Phillies. He also has slugged .564, which ranks 11th among all players who have played at least 20 games at CBP.
The positional fit: Machado provides superior offense and elite defense at third base, a combination that has driven the Phillies’ interest. Harper is coming off the worst defensive season of his career, but his minus-26 defensive runs saved in 2018 are an outlier compared to the rest of a career in which he has rated as an average to above-average right fielder.
And while signing either player would give the Phillies another trade chip, Harper might leave them well-positioned to flip Nick Williams as part of a package to the outfield-needy Cleveland Indians for a high-impact starting pitcher such as Trevor Bauer or Corey Kluber.
The divisional fit: Machado and Harper would both make the Phillies better. But signing Harper carries the added benefit of keeping him from returning to the rival Nationals, who made a 10-year, $300 million bid for Harper at the end of last season and recently rekindled talks.
The Nats outbid the Phillies for lefty Patrick Corbin. They also added catchers Kurt Suzuki and Yan Gomes, second baseman Brian Dozier, first baseman Matt Adams, and pitcher Anibal Sanchez. They remain formidable in the National League East, but with Harper, they would be that much better.
The marketing fit: Boras has described Harper as a “generational” player in large part because of his impact off the field. At the general managers’ meetings in November, the agent cited numbers that showed the Nationals’ attendance increased by 600,000 and their television ratings tripled since Harper made his debut in 2010. Moreover, Harper’s jersey was the 13th-highest seller in Major League Baseball last season.
Machado, for as talented as he is, didn’t have that kind of must-see appeal in Baltimore, a point that Boras surely made to Middleton during Saturday’s meeting.