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March 04, 2019

What they're saying: How the Phillies landed a superstar, and why all the pressure is now on Harper

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030419_Harper-Bryce_usat Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports

Philadelphia Phillies right fielder Bryce Harper during his first workout with his new team.

In Philadelphia, tickets to see the local baseball team — and jerseys of their newest addition — are selling faster than they ever have before thanks to the Phillies' recent signing of former MVP Bryce Harper to a 13-year deal. After several down seasons, the Phillies seem poised to contend for the National League pennant this season thanks to a huge winter that also included the additions of two other 2018 MLB All Stars (J.T. Realmuto and Jean Segura) and another former MVP (Andrew McCutchen).

Obviously, the big prize of their offseason was Harper, who was formally introduced to the media and fans over the weekend in a press conference that was both a spectacle and a perfectly crafted moment for an organization that badly needed an injection of star power. Nearly everything Harper said left Phillies fans swooning — with the exception of that one slip of the tongue

From his reasoning behind switching from No. 34 to No. 3 to him giving the visiting clubhouse attendant and the fans in the stands behind him in right field credit for his decision to ultimately sign with the Phillies, Harper was phenomenal. And the fans responded by going out and buying those No. 3 jerseys in record fashion

Meanwhile, down in D.C., they don't seem to be taking it quite as well. In our most recent What They're Saying before this, we included a column from Neil Greenberg of The Washington Post, in which he stated that Harper wasn't worth the $330 million the Phillies will pay him. There's nothing wrong with that being your opinion — and Greenberg wasn't alone in voicing that concern. 

However, the problem comes when that same writer, one offseason earlier, wrote that the Nationals should try to re-sign Harper before he hits free agency and they should offer him $500 million to convince them. Even then, he wrote, that would be "a bargain" for Washington. Let me just check my math ... carry the one ... divide by ... yes, as it turns out, $500 million is quite a bit more than $330 million.

Sure, Harper had a down year in 2018, but he's still just 26 years old and one of the best players in the game. So what else could have changed Greenberg's mind in the year-plus since he wrote that original story? Oh, yes, Bryce Harper's uniform changed. Maybe that had something to do with it... 

Or, maybe it's simply because Harper is going to crumble under the pressures of playing in Philadelphia, like conservative commentator Jonathan V. Last — yes, he lists Washington, D.C. as the location in his Twitter bio — suggested on Monday. I won't bore you with all seven tweets he posted in this thread, but I think I can just give you the first and the last, and you can fill in the rest of it by reaching into the tired old bag of anti-Philly cliches and pulling any random thing out. That's what he did... 

Sorry if you had snowballs instead of D-batteries in your office "What Terrible Philly Sports Joke Will Someone Make Today?" poll. He also name-dropped Brian Dawkins, Charles Barkley and Chase Utley. Say what you will about Philly fans and the local sports media, but at least we'll badmouth you to your face, rather than, you know, wait until you're gone and talk shit behind your back.

If you care to read more of his horrible sports takes — because I'm done wasting time on it — you won't do much better than Kevin Kinkead's step-by-step dismantling of his tweets over on Crossing Broad.

In the meantime, let's look at what some actual baseball writers are saying about Bryce Harper and his new start with the Phillies... 

Under pressure? 

Bob Nightengale | USA TODAY

There will certainly be added pressure on the Phillies to win this year, but that's nothing new to Harper, who has been playing competitive baseball for a while now down in D.C. Sure, the Philly media might be a little tougher on him than the Washington media, but it doesn't seem like that's something the new Phillies outfielder will shy away from.

Life will forever now be different for Harper. He’s the one with the bulls-eye on his back. He’s the one who will be judged on the playoff appearances championships the Phillies will win. When you’re making the most money in the game, with the longest guaranteed contract, it doesn’t matter that Harper still is the second-youngest player in the lineup. There will be no room for patience...

The Phillies don’t want to put any extra burden on Harper. They realize the fans won’t be satisfied with anything less than a World Series appearance. Even Phillies owner John Middleton says he believes they now are the team to beat in the NL East.

“At the end of the day, I want to be able to go to sleep,’’ Harper said, “and know that I gave it my all and was able to bring back a title to the Philadelphia Phillies’ organization." ...

Harper insists he has already embraced himself for the city of Brotherly Love, and if they want to boo him, really, he’s all ears.

“The one thing I know," Harper told his agent, Scott Boras,  "if I get booed, it’s going to be great. That means I did something wrong and I deserve it. I need those kinds of fans help me become a better player."

Welcome to Philly.  [usatoday.com]

The story behind the singing

Matt Gelb | The Athletic

If you read one Phillies story today, make it this. Matt Gelb did an incredible job, both reporting and writing, this behind-the-scenes look at how Philly got their man, from how the team reacted to owner John Middleton's "stupid money" comment to what took place behind closed doors at their Las Vegas meeting(s) — and even how the Phillies tried to out-Boras Scott Boras. It's really fascinating, and should leave Phillies fans feeling pretty good about their current front office, not to mention their new superstar. 

The Phillies became the gatekeepers of the winter. Teams and agents always circled back before deals were completed just to see whether the Phillies could offer something sweeter. ...

Much of the Phillies’ time wasn’t spent investigating whether they were bidding alone or identifying the competing suitors. ...they investigated Boras and obsessed over his tactics. ...  [theathletic.com]

Here's a little info on that big meeting with Harper in Vegas, and possibly the moment Middleton was convinced that Harper was their guy:

Harper had questions. First, for Middleton: Are you the type of owner who will make a commitment to this team and continue to do it for a long period of time? Yes, Middleton said. He asked Klentak if he was the type of general manager who would be aggressive to make this team competitive. Klentak explained his balancing act. But, yes, his mandate was to win now and win later. Harper left the meeting impressed by the presentation about the entire organization; he later made a specific mention about minor-league operation. This is a theme the Phillies leaned on during the weeks and weeks of talks. They would offer the money, the years and the commitment to winning.

Then, Harper began talking about the future. He told the Phillies contingent that he did not want an opt-out in his contract. He said he wanted to go to one place and stay there. He wanted to know what hat he’d wear to Cooperstown. A lifetime deal. The Phillies were confused. They were not sure if it was real or a negotiating ploy. But they stared Harper in the eyes and there was something legitimate here. Some within the front office began to wonder if Middleton had made his decision right then and there.  [theathletic.com]

And, finally, remember that late meeting in Vegas with just Middleton and his wife, Leigh, but no other front office members? That may actually have gone the longest toward actually getting this done. 

Boras wanted Middleton to come to Las Vegas — on his own. No one else. The Phillies did not want that to happen. They needed someone else there with Middleton. The group decided his wife, Leigh, should accompany him for the Feb. 22 dinner meeting at Carbone inside the Aria. They made it personal; business talk did not dominate the night. It became a turning point in the narrative.  [theathletic.com]

Fishing for information

Todd Zolecki | MLB.com

We already talked about how Bryce Harper openly stated his intentions of recruiting other big-name players to join him on the Phillies — not to mention the not-so-subtle Mike Trout comment he made at his introductory press conference — but when it comes to Trout, it doesn't look like he'll need much convincing. After all, he was apparently one of the people who helped convince Harper that Philly was the right town for him.

Bryce Harper needed to know if he could call Philadelphia home, so he turned to a South Jersey native for help.

He turned to Mike Trout.

“I talked to him a lot,” Harper said Saturday afternoon, following his introductory news conference at Spectrum Field. “From November, all the way through the process.” ...

“Just seeing where he grew up in Philly, things like that,” Harper said. “I played with him in the [Arizona] Fall League [in 2011], and we’ve kept in contact over the last seven years. But just trying to get a hometown kid to tell me what he felt, how he felt about the organization and the area and things like that. He’s a kid who grew up seeing the Phillies have success, so going through those times with the fans and things like that. It was good to get his perspective and hear how he felt.”  [mlb.com]

Way-too-early power rankings

Matt Snyder | CBSSports.com

In CBS Sports' latest MLB power rankings, the Phillies have climbed five spots to No. 8 overall. Not too shabby considering they haven't started playing real games yet... 

8. Phillies

Now that's how you win the offseason. The Phillies might not be a playoff team yet, but they are way better than last equipped for a postseason push this time around.  [cbssports.com]

Oh, and it seems like gamblers are also getting on board with the Phillies... 

Follow Matt on Twitter: @matt_mullin

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