Bryce Harper and Phillies are right back where they started

Bryce Harper gave the Phillies exactly the type of season they hoped for when they signed him to the team’s first $300M+ deal. Unfortunately, he couldn’t pitch the ninth inning (or the eighth inning), and the Phillies fell short of true contention yet again.

Guaranteed Contract

  • Bryce Harper, OF: $263M through 2031
  • Zack Wheeler, RHP: $74M through 2024
  • J.T. Realmuto, C: $95.5M through 2025
  • Jean Segura, 2B:$15.485M through 2022 (includes $1M buyout of $17M club option for 2023)
  • Didi Gregorius, SS: $15.25M in 2022
  • Aaron Nola, RHP: $19.75M in 2022 (includes $4.25M buyout of $16M club option for 2023)
  • Kyle Gibson, RHP: $7.6M in 2022
  • Scott Kingery, IF/OF: $15.5M through 2023 (includes $1M buyout of $13M team option for 2024)
  • 2022 commitments: $130.7M
  • Total long-term commitments: $506M

Projected Salaries For Arbitration-Eligible Players (projections from MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)

Option Decisions

Free Agents

The Phillies did it: they finished with a better than .500 record. The Bryce Harper era began on the heels of an 80-82 season in 2018, but before the ink was dry, a new era was supposed to have begun in Philadelphia. In the third season of the Harper era, the Phillies finally reversed that record, finished 82-80 and in second place, their first winning season since 2011. It only took three years and an MVP season out of Harper to get them there.

And while it’s nice to be a winning team – well-deserving of a pat on the back – the Phillies fell short of true contention. Instead, Harper watched from home as a division rival won the World Series for the second time in the three years. That has to smart.

Still, there’s no revelation coming to Philadelphia. In terms of strategy, it’s likely to be the same game script for the Phillies moving forward, though they’ll shuffle the cards and hope for a different result. President of Baseball Ops Dave Dombrowski is a fairly well-known commodity throughout the league, so if there’s a wrinkle coming in Philly’s team-building strategy, it might have to come from GM Sam Fuld.

The former outfielder has been with the Phillies for years, but his ascension to Dombrowski’s top lieutenant is less than a year old. As Grima Wormtongue to Dombrowski’s King Théoden, Fuld’s analytical approach should have taken root by now, but the organizational philosophy still seems relatively straight-forward: acquire players to help this team win today.

Looking back to Philly’s deadline moves, dealing five years of control over former top prospect Spencer Howard for a year and a half of Kyle Gibson is an old-school deadline add, though the inclusion of 23-year-old Hans Crouse hints at more nuanced thinking. That said, Crouse made two starts in the Majors after his arrival, so the Phils clearly see him as an option for innings in 2022.

The focus of the front office is putting a winning team on the field ASAP, and in this way, the Phillies are a breath of fresh air in an era popularized by “cute” front offices, constantly balancing short-term value with long-term flexibility. The Phillies may seem to be working with blunter instruments at times, but what sets the apart as an organization right now is that they don’t mind if everyone knows how badly they want to win.

In the dugout, there aren’t nearly as many tea leaves to read. Manager Joe Girardi needs to win baseball games. With whatever 26-and-40-man roster he has at his disposal come opening day, he needs to win games.

Since Charlie Manuel’s departure midway through the 2013 season, managers haven’t stayed overlong in Philadelphia. Each of Ryne Sandberg (278 games, .428 W-L%), Pete Mackanin (412 games, .422 W-L%), or newly-crowned NL Manager of the Year Gabe Kapler (324 games, .497 W-L%) lost their caps in relatively short order. Girardi (222 games, .495 W-L%) may be nearing a tipping point as well.

Girardi isn’t all that close to eclipsing his predecessors’ raw totals in terms of games managed, but if Girardi can make it through 2022, he’ll be the first to last three full seasons since Manuel. Getting sacked before the end of next season is hardly a fait accompli for Girardi, though his disappointing tenure has coincided with a green-lit era of full-go contention for the front office. Needless to say, expectations are high. Don’t be surprised to see Girardi as a high draft pick in your office’s first manager fired pool.

So what do Dombrowski and Fuld need to put Girardi in position to keep his job? The roster is tough to analyze, because in some regards, 2021 went exactly as planned. Harper won his second MVP award after slashing .309/.429/.615 with a league-leading 42 doubles, 35 home runs, 101 runs scored, and a robust 170 wRC+. Zack Wheeler led the Majors with 213 1/3 innings pitched, he was second among hurlers with 7.3 fWAR, and his 2.78 ERA/2.59 FIP were among the best marks in the game. He faced more batters than any other pitcher in the NL, and he struck out more of them (247) than any other pitcher in the NL. He finished second in voting for NL Cy Young.

If baseball were a two-man game, the Phillies might be the champs. Unfortunately, Harper and Wheeler’s outlandish success in 2021 is as much a cause for skepticism as it is optimism. After all, even with those stellar campaigns, the Phillies barely broke an even record. Harper and Wheeler should continue to be good, but it’s not fair to expect MVP and Cy Young seasons every year. That said, the duo forms a pretty solid foundation.

You can add J.T. Realmuto and Aaron Nola to that solid core. Nola tossed 180 innings, and though his bottom-line run-prevention numbers were sub-optimal (4.63 ERA), his 3.37 FIP, 29.8 percent strikeout rate, and 5.2 percent walk rate fall in line with career expectations and suggest Nola continues to be a solid front-of-the-rotation arm.

In the first year of his new five-year contract, Realmuto posted 3.5 rWAR and played his role as Harper’s running mate to perfection. He was a little nicked-up down the stretch, forcing a tad more playing time for Andrew Knapp and Rafael Marchan, but he still managed to play in 134 games and step to the plate 537 times. The catchers’ room already looks a little different with Garrett Stubbs and Donny Sands joining Realmuto and Marchan, but the bottom line here is that so long as Realmuto stays healthy, the Phillies ought to be a top-10 team in cacher fWAR again (they were 8th by fWAR in 2021).

At the risk of turning this into a bit of a hoe-down, let’s keep two-stepping through the roster, where Rhys Hoskins and Kyle Gibson appear next. Hoskins and Gibson aren’t nearly the talents of the names above, but they ought to be solid contributors to a contending team.

Hoskins’ footspeed and defensive ability make him a limited player, but if he’s healthy, his bat belongs in the middle of the order. He is a career 122 wRC+ bat coming off a .247/.334/.530 batting line across 443 plate appearances. His peripherals are remarkably steady, even if his walk rate did fall a touch to a career-low 10.6% in 2021. Hoskins should plan to inch that number even a tad closer to his 14.3% career walk rate and let his power do the rest. As a designated hitter, he’s a grand option, but even wearing his first baseman’s glove, Hoskins figured to continue to be a 2-2.5 fWAR player. In brief, there’s nothing wrong with Hoskins’ roster spot.

If Hoskins is a bronze level bat, then Gibson is more-or-less the rotation equivalent. Where Hoskins brings power to the plate, Gibson’s value proposition is an uncanny ability to keep the ball on the ground. His 51.7% groundball rate in 2021 was right near his career average of 51.5% – well above the 41.2% league average mark. Keeping the ball on the ground helps Gibson keep the ball in the yard, which Gibson accomplished at rates he hadn’t hit since his late-twenties (0.84 HR/9, 11.1% HR/FB). Gibson’s 3.0 fWAR was the best mark of his career, and his 3.71 ERA/3.87 FIP were close.

Beyond worm killing, Gibson’s calling card has been his reliability. A starter that takes the ball every five turns will start about 20% of his team’s games, and Gibson’s never started less than 15% of his. He’s a textbook first division number four starter, even entering his age-34 season.

One problem in team-building, of course, is asking players to move up a rung. If Gibson is your best starter, as he was with the Rangers last year, that’s not going to be a very good team. And if he’s your number three, as he was with the Phillies, that’s probably an average-ish team. That’s a simplistic take, as there are many ways to build a winning club, but the point here is a broader one about the depth of recent Phillies’ ballclubs: they don’t have it, and they need it. The six players above get a lot of guff for this Philly club, but they aren’t the problem. If anything, reliance on this sextet is the problem.

Bottom line, the Phillies have holes to fill, and they don’t have the talent pipeline to do so internally. So where to begin? The obvious place is the bullpen, which was a disaster: 27th with 1.1 fWAR, 25th with a 4.60 ERA, 27th with a 4.61 FIP, 21st with 36 saves, and of course, ripped from the headlines, tied with the Nats for the most blown saves in the game with 34. The bullpen was bad. Or rather, the bullpen pitched poorly. But bullpens are fickle, and they’re easier to turn around year-to-year than any other aspect of a roster.

So let’s start with fixing the offense, which should be a more urgent priority for Dombrowski. They need a centerfielder, and after declining McCutchen’s option, they need a left fielder as well. They could, conceivably, take the field on opening day with Alec Bohm and Didi Gregorius on the left side of the infield, but based on their 2021 production alone – ignoring their prospect pedigree and contract, respectively – both should be replaced. That’s half of the starting lineup that could use an upgrade. And yet, the Phillies remained one of the most inactive teams in the game prior to the roster freeze.

Centerfield remains the biggest hole on the Philadelphia roster, no less so after declining their option on Odubel Herrera, who led the team with 104 games in center last year. Herrera rebounded from his long layoff relatively well, posting 1.8 rWAR/1.1 fWAR in 492 plate appearances. He walks at a below-average rate (5.9%) and he puts the ball in play more often than most (15.9% strikeout rate), but that contact had little pop behind it in 2021 as Herrera managed just a .156 ISO. He didn’t embarrass himself out there, but he didn’t add much value for a Philly squad that needs bit of production it can get.

They need to turn centerfield into a better-than average spot, and there aren’t a plethora of options available. Mickey Moniak and Adam Haseley would be penciled in as the starters in center and left, respectively, though the Phils probably want both coming off the bench in 2022. ’

That means scouring the market, where there aren’t lot of true centerfielders available. Starling Marte would be option A in free agency, had he not signed with the rival Mets, and Byron Buxton is the highest-ceiling potential trade target, had he not signed an extension with the Twins. They might check in with Oakland about their available position players, whether that be Ramon Laureano for center or Matt Chapman for third.

As for the bullpen, it already looks a little different than at the end of last season. Hector Neris signed a two-year deal with the Astros, while Corey Knebel has joined the Phillies on a one-year deal. Knebel will be a closing option for Girardi. Jose Alvarado from the left side should also get plenty of high leverage opportunities. They claimed southpaw Ryan Sherriff off waivers from the Rays as well. Sherriff has been seen spotty action for the Cardinals and Rays, but he’s never spent a full season on the Major League roster.

The Phillies have a lot of work to do. They signed Johan Camargo just before the lockout, and while Camargo adds valuable versatility, he hasn’t been productive at the plate since 2018. He can be a part of the bench, but he’s not a solution for the left side of the infield. Nor does he solve the problems in the outfield. Nor will he close games. At this stage, however, it’s important to remember that the addition of Camargo and Knebel represent the beginning of the Phillies’ offseason, not the end of it.

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