Friday, March 1, 2019

Free Preview, March 1, 2019 -- "Bryce Harper and the Phillies"

This is a preview of the Joe Sheehan Baseball Newsletter, an e-mail newsletter about all things baseball, featuring analysis and opinion about the game on and off the field from the perspective of the informed outsider. Joe Sheehan is a founding member of Baseball Prospectus and a contributor to Sports Illustrated and Baseball America. He has been writing about baseball for more than 20 years.

Your subscription gets you the newsletter and various related features two to five days a week, more than 150 mailings (more than 200,000 words) a year full of smart, fun baseball writing that you can't find in the mainstream. Subscribers can also access the new Slack workspace, to talk baseball with me and hundreds of other Newsletter subscribers.

You can subscribe to the newsletter for one year for $39.95 using your PayPal account or major credit card.


The Joe Sheehan Newsletter
Vol. 11, No. 8
March 1, 2019

Completing what was always the best match between player and team, the Phillies signed Bryce Harper to a 13-year, $330-million contract that sets baseball records for length and overall value. The contract is unusual, in our modern game, for a lack of opt-outs -- there are none -- and deferrals, also none. It’s a straightforward contract that commits the Phillies and Harper to one another, at a perfectly reasonable cost, into the 2030s.

There’s been some pushback against Harper taking this deal, and I’ll admit that the average annual value, a bit more than $25 million per season, is a surprise. I’d said, even after his poor walk year, that Harper could get more than $35 million per year on a long-term contract. He got a tick more than 2/3 of that, after four months of lukewarm bidding on his services. While the “$330 million” and “13 years” will be in bold type for casual sports fans and the generalists in the media, it’s that tepid AAV, Jake Arrieta money, that better reflects the current state of the baseball talent market. There just weren’t that many teams bidding aggressively on Harper, or on Manny Machado for that matter. The deals those two players eventually signed aren’t signs that the market is healthy; they’re signs the market isn’t.

For the Phillies, locking in Harper at $25.4 million per leaves them room to sign another superstar two years from now and still have plenty of room below the luxury-tax threshold. There’s no need to be coy; Mike Trout is scheduled to reach free agency at the end of the 2020 season, and he plays for a team that has made the postseason once in his seven full seasons, one that is unlikely to get to October in 2019. Trout is from southern New Jersey, and he has been a regular presence at Eagles games. It’s far from certain that he’ll move to the Phillies for the 2021 season, but the Harper contract won’t be a barrier to him making that choice. The Phillies, with $95 million committed to six players in 2021, will be able to sign him to a market-rate deal.

(Oh, I should mention...because I use Google Groups to distribute the Newsletter, the work under that link shows up without attribution. It’s from Cot’s Contracts, under the umbrella of Baseball Prospectus.)

If you think Harper sold himself light, it’s worth listening to what his agent, Scott Boras, had to say. Harper wanted length, wanted a commitment to one place, one team, for the rest of his career. The willingness to sign this deal without opt-outs is prima facie evidence that as attractive as, say, the Dodgers’ rumored 4/140 offer seems, it wasn’t what the player wanted. I’ve argued this over and over again, but this is a clear case: Scott Boras isn’t Svengali. He works for the player, and when the player expresses his desires, Boras works within that framework to make the best deal possible.

The Phillies needed Harper. They’d spent a lot of money and talent on the 2019 roster, but they were a player short, at least, and Harper was probably the last chance for them to leverage their local-TV money until Trout’s free agency. Adding him directly addresses the OBP deficiency of the 2018 team (.314, tenth in the NL), and while his 2018 defensive numbers were bad, there’s a strong case that those numbers were a one-year fluke. You can get a wide range of opinions on what the rest of Harper’s career will be, but if you’re selling, I’m buying. I think Harper lands north of 600 home runs, 75 bWAR, and walks into the Hall of Fame. I think the Phillies just got themselves a bargain.

Here’s what it gives them heading into the ’19 season:

2B-B Cesar Hernandez
1B-B Carlos Santana
RF-R Nick Williams
LF-R Rhys Hoskins
CF-R Aaron Altherr
SS-L J.P. Crawford
3B-R Maikel Franco
C-B Andrew Knapp

No, wait, that’s the Opening Day lineup from 2018. This is better:

SS-R Jean Segura
RF-L Bryce Harper
LF-R Andrew McCutchen
1B-R Rhys Hoskins
C-R J.T. Realmuto
CF-L Odubel Herrera
3B-R Maikel Franco
2B-B Cesar Hernandez

Now, you can oversell the improvement here. The Carlos Santana-for-Jean Segura trade represented an enormous defensive gain, mostly because it got Rhys Hoskins out of the outfield. Three months later, though, we see a team that doesn’t have a center fielder; Harper has had awful numbers there, and his time in center really should be over. McCutchen crossed that line three years ago. Odubel Herrera’s defensive statistics fell off a cliff last year in all measurements, and the Phillies were easing him out of center for Roman Quinn late last season. Quinn, however, is hurt again, with a right oblique strain. (For that matter, so is Herrera, nursing a strained left hamstring.) The Phillies’ defense will be better this year, because it has to be, but there’s a chance the outfield defense will still be an issue.

Bench-B Roman Quinn (OF)
Bench-L Scott Kingery (IF)
Bench-R Nick Williams (OF)
Bench-R Aaron Altherr (OF)
Bench-B Andrew Knapp (C)

Setting aside the question of whether the Phillies will go with 13 position players, I’m not sure this is a tenable alignment. Neither Nick Williams nor Aaron Altherr is a center fielder, so if Quinn can’t ring the bell, the team still needs a backup center fielder. Scott Kingery may push both Maikel Franco and Cesar Hernandez for playing time. He’d do better with one role, as irregular plate appearances and being stretched to play shortstop contributed to his poor rookie season.

The Phillies’ bench is awfully strong, should they keep it together. You wonder if a trade of Nick Williams is a better use of a player like that, what with the starting outfield now signed through at least 2021. The Catch-22 is finding a way to keep Williiams’s trade value high with playing time at a premium.

SP-R Aaron Nola
SP-R Jake Arrieta
SP-R Nick Pivetta
SP-R Vincent Velasquez
SP-R Zach Eflin

I am not sure what Dallas Keuchel’s asking price is, but this rotation is crying out for a high-floor lefty. Nick Pivetta has a lot of helium in the fantasy community, off a 27% strikeout rate. Vincent Velasquez is a relief pitcher, Zach Eflin is an up-and-down guy. This is where it could fall apart a bit for the Phillies, and adding another pitcher who is a good bet for 30 starts and 180 innings, like Keuchel, could close the gap between them and the Nationals.

RP-R Seranthony Dominguez
RP-R David Robertson
RP-R Juan Nicasio
RP-R Pat Neshek
RP-L Adam Morgan
RP-R Edubray Ramos
RP-L Jose Alvarez
RP-R Hector Neris

The additions of David Robertson (on a two-year free-agent deal), Juan Nicasio (in the Segura trade), and Jose Alvarez (in trade from the Angels) lengthen a bullpen that already had a lot of live arms. Gabe Kapler was all over the map last year, chasing matchups to the extremes at times, ignoring the save rule at times, using Seranthony Dominguez in a two-inning role at times. I wonder if the addition of healthy veterans, ones mostly used in one-inning roles, and the return of Pat Neshek, will tamp down Kapler’s excesses a bit.

The Phillies had a long way to come after last season, which saw them finish ten games out of first place after contending deep into August. Matt Klentak spent a lot of money and talent upgrading the roster, and while I think you can pick at individual decisions -- I don’t love the McCutchen signing, for one -- he’s assembled a better team than he had a year ago. There are still flaws, and the question now is whether Klentak has the authority to exceed the tax threshold to add a missing piece, specifically a high-end starting pitcher. It’s better to win 91 games, make the playoffs and pay the tax than to win 87 and miss everything.

This problem is exacerbated by the competitive environment. The three best teams in baseball are in the American League, but you can make a case that eight of the next nine are in the NL, four of them in the NL East. The Phillies don’t have a lot of wiggle room. For all of the problems MLB has with teams not trying to win, the NL East’s top four teams have pushed the pedal down this winter.