With Bryce Harper, are Phillies favorites in division, entire NL or more?


After reaching an agreement with Bryce Harper on the biggest contract in big league history, the Philadelphia Phillies still aren't really favorites to win anything. However, the path for the Phils to reach front-runner status just became a lot more clear, and their ceiling just became a whole lot higher.

Harper, at his best, is an MVP-level player, one who put up a 10-WAR season at age 22. He also has shown a propensity for up-and-down play. His WAR by year: 5.2, 3.7, 1.1, 10.0, 1.5, 4.7, 1.3. That's an average of 3.9, closest to his output of Season 2. But the Phillies aren't paying for his average season, and they certainly aren't paying for his sub-2 WAR seasons. They are paying for that 10-win season, or at least the allure of it, and with a solid roster already in place, another such campaign by Harper could make the Phillies the National League's best team. It's an exciting thought, if not entirely realistic.

To be sure, the 10-win version of Harper could produce a season for the ages if he's calling Citizens Bank Park home for half his games. Consider this tidbit from ESPN Stats & Information for players with at least 200 plate appearances there:

Highest Slugging Percentage in Citizens Bank Park
Bryce Harper .564
Rhys Hoskins .562
Chipper Jones .547

By signing with Philadelphia, Harper might have tightened the pressure screws a couple of notches, but he did his swing a great favor, as he wasn't as well suited for Dodger Stadium, and the Giants' Oracle Park would have been even worse. That .564 slugging in Philly is based on 50 games, so small-sample caveats apply. But consider that Harper's career slugging at Nationals Park is .518; he has homered once every 18.1 at-bats there. In Philly, it has been once every 12.8.

Nevertheless, you can't pencil in those 10 wins that represent Harper's ceiling, you can only hope for them. And while the average version of Harper is a solid baseline for projection purposes, it still means Philadelphia has some work left to do.

Let's start with where the Phillies are starting: For all the good work Philadelphia did last season, their first with manager Gabe Kapler at the helm, they still finished just 80-82, with the run differential of a 76-86 team. It was a team on the upswing: The only regular position player on the squad older than 28 was Carlos Santana, who has since been dealt. With the addition of Harper, the Phillies will likely now feature four new regulars in their everyday lineup.

The likely starters:

1. Andrew McCutchen, LF (age 32)
2. Jean Segura, SS (29)
3. Bryce Harper, RF (26)
4. J.T. Realmuto, C (28)
5. Rhys Hoskins, 1B (26)
6. Odubel Herrera, CF (27)
7. Maikel Franco, 3B (26)
8. Cesar Hernandez, 2B (29)
Superutility: Scott Kingery (25)

In terms of age, this is a group right in the sweet spot, with McCutchen replacing Santana as the elder statesman. However, the former NL MVP is a great athlete, the kind whose aging curves tend to be less steep, and McCutchen has only recently moved off an up-the-middle position. Everyone else is in or approaching their prime seasons.

What's really alluring is how the additions reduce the need for Herrera and Franco to break out. Both have been under pressure to become homegrown foundation players in Philadelphia for several years, but now their places in the pecking order have been pushed down. If either or both finally produce a full season that approaches their potential, suddenly the Phillies will feature a very deep and dangerous lineup, if healthy. Hoskins and Hernandez are both bounce-back candidates, with Hoskins especially likely to produce more after his hazardous one-season journey as an outfielder.

Philadelphia ranked 11th in the National League by runs last season, and the same by OPS+, which is park-adjusted. Realmuto gives them one of the two best offensive catchers in the league, along with San Francisco's Buster Posey. Hoskins should be a top-five first baseman, Hernandez around the middle among second basemen, and Segura is a huge upgrade at shortstop, where Kingery, J.P. Crawford & Co. were replacement level at the plate.

In right field, the Phillies ranked 14th in the NL in offensive WAR. The top-ranked team at the position was Washington, and now the Phils have the player most responsible for that ranking in Harper. With McCutchen upgrading their expected performance from left field, that leaves as the only question marks third base -- Franco's domain -- and center field, where Herrera roams. The offense will improve even if Franco and Herrera hold steady. If they break out, look out.

In any event, the Phillies are almost certainly now one of the five best offensive teams in the National League.

As for the defense, the picture is not as pretty. Philadelphia was baseball's worst-defending team for most of 2018, though the Phillies were surpassed in that regard by the crumbling Baltimore Orioles by the end of the season.

Realmuto is solid behind the plate, but he's not an upgrade on Jorge Alfaro. Segura is an average shortstop, about the same as McCutchen is as a corner outfielder. Harper was at minus-16 defensive runs saved in right field, the second worst at that position, and another minus-10 runs in center. So while it's an upgrade to get Hoskins (minus-24 in left) back to first base, the actual effect on the outfield defense could prove negligible if Harper doesn't step it up with the glove. There hasn't been much of a change in his sprint speed over the past few years, so perhaps $330 million worth of effort and improved positioning will help move him move closer to average.

The bottom line is that the Phillies need to be a lot better on defense to contend and it's not obvious from a personnel standpoint where that upgrade might come.

The Phillies rate in the middle of the pack on the pitching front, and if there are any more free-agent splurges to be made, that's where it has to come. The Aaron Nola and Jake Arrieta-led rotation looks a little top-heavy on paper, though the club seems to be high on the progress of the likes of Nick Pivetta, Vince Velasquez and Zach Eflin. It's a mix that would look a lot more contender-like with Dallas Keuchel in the middle of it.

If it were to come down to a choice between spending on Keuchel or closer Craig Kimbrel, the Phils should go with Keuchel. For one thing, Philadelphia has a nice, deep group of young hard throwers for its bullpen, ranging from Seranthony Dominguez to Hector Neris to Edubray Ramos to Yacksel Rios. There are solid veterans to stabilize setup roles in Tommy Hunter and Pat Neshek. And there is a dynamic veteran in David Robertson to hold down the back end. Surely the Phils can structure a contending-level bullpen out of this mix.

Maybe the biggest question mark about the Phillies is that the addition of Harper, McCutchen, Segura, Realmuto and Robertson are finishing-piece moves, all of which filled holes and look like solid bets to upgrade the roster. But this wasn't a group that had already come together. The Phillies are banking that in Franco, Herrera, Kingery and any number of those young pitchers, the foundation that they built during the long years after the Cole Hamels-Chase Utley days will coalesce. It's not the worst bet to make and you have to applaud a club that is selling itself to the fans with action, not hope.

Still, even in their own division, the Phillies' offense doesn't look as complete as Washington's, even with the absorption of Harper. The defense is a mess until it proves otherwise. The Philly rotation doesn't approach the powerhouse group of the Nationals, and the Braves can match the Phillies in terms of ascending prospects and might trump them in star power with Ronald Acuna Jr. The Mets still have their power arms and a veteran group built to win immediately. The Dodgers and Cubs don't appear to be ready to relinquish their dominance of the National League, while the Brewers and Cardinals have upgraded already good rosters.

The Phillies' baseline for this season moves from around 80 to 83 wins to somewhere around 84 to 88. The latest Vegas numbers moved from 86.5 wins to 89.5, reflecting an even more optimistic view of things than you get from statistical forecasts. The Phillies are solidly in the mix of teams that can win a division crown, a pennant or a World Series, and they can do it this season. They are not the favorites, though, to win anything. As busy as this offseason has been, the Phillies' work has only just begun.

But now we know what the Phillies are going to look like. Harper is under contract until after the 2031 season, when most of the cars on the road will be driverless and we'll be watching live games from our couches on virtual reality headsets. Segura is locked up through 2022, McCutchen and Herrera through 2021, Kingery through 2023. There surely will be a push to extend Realmuto, who has one more arbitration-eligible season remaining before hitting free agency after the 2020 season.

And for all those Philadelphia fans pining for hometown hero Mike Trout, the 13-year duration of Harper's contract knocks his average annual value down to $25.4 million. If Trout wants to move East after the 2020 season, there won't be a financial impediment toward making that happen. That would be the finishing piece on the next Philadelphia mini-dynasty.

For now, what the Phillies have bought for themselves is relevance, and it's a ticket that should be good for at least a half-decade. Best of all, it's a show that's just getting started.