At His Best or Worst, Bryce Harper Makes the Phillies Considerably Better in 2019

At his best, Bryce Harper is the MVP caliber player that he was when he posted an all-time great season in 2015. His worst is the incredibly streaky talent with the 133 OPS+ and shaky defense he displayed last year. Either way, the 2019 Phillies are better after signing the 26-year-old outfielder.
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Rewind a little bit—say, to Monday, February 25th. Manny Machado is getting situated with the San Diego Padres. Bryce Harper is still available, seemingly ready to be signed any day now or never at all. Spring Training is beginning its third week, with less than a month until Opening Day. And Philadelphia has had a great offseason! The Phillies have added J.T. Realmuto, Andrew McCutchen, Jean Segura and David Robertson. They’ve signed an extension with ace Aaron Nola. They’ve done more to improve than any other team has. The NL East is tough, and there aren’t any guarantees here. But Philadelphia looks much closer to the top than it did at this time last year, with a splendid winter to thank.  

Okay, return to today. The Phillies have taken that wonderfully productive offseason, and now they’ve paid up to add the biggest free agent in history. Bryce Harper will be anchored in Philadelphia for a period of time too long to reasonably be described as the foreseeable future. The star outfielder signed for 13 (!) years with no opt-out clauses along with a full no-trade clause, which feels completely over the horizon, past anything that anyone can possibly see. For a moment, though, set aside everything in the distance. What does Harper mean for Philadelphia in 2019?

It might seem self-evident to say that he makes the team considerably better. But after a heated free agency that’s produced constant debate on his value, on whether he can live up to a big contract, on how overrated he is or how overpaid he might become… it’s worth saying the following: Bryce Harper would have made any team considerably better, and now, that team will be the Phillies.

The projection systems certainly seem to think so, at least. Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA has him down for 4.7 WARP in 2019, with likely comparable players for the season listed as 1935 Mel Ott, 1962 Frank Robinson and 1994 Frank Thomas. (You probably don’t have to look up any specific stat lines to know that those are good, but—yes, including one MVP.) Meanwhile, Steamer projects Harper for 4.8 WAR, as does ZiPS. If all of that sounds like a bunch of alphabet soup, the bottom line matters more than any of the letters: Harper’s expected to be worth more than a few wins, playing at the clear level of an All-Star.

These projections are all a bit better than where he finished last year, but even with all of the hand-wringing about his first-half slump, low batting average and defensive ability in 2018—Harper finished the season with a 133 OPS+ and led all of baseball in walks. If 2018 was considered to be him at his worst (or, at least, at his streakiest and least consistently productive), rest easy with the knowledge that the “worst” outcome for any individual full season from him in the immediate future isn’t bad. And, of course, that’s just the floor. The ceiling is his 2015 MVP, which, lest you forget… 1.109 OPS, 42 HRs, 10.0 Baseball-Reference WAR. Thats the ceiling.

The Phillies’ outfield is now Harper, McCutchen, and Odubel Herrera. It’s a dramatic upgrade from last year, which most often featured Herrera flanked by Rhys Hoskins and Nick Williams. Hoskins will still be around, just back to his old position at first base after the Phillies traded Carlos Santana to Seattle (who then traded him to Cleveland). The 26-year-old Hoskins will be a much better defensive fit at first than he was in left field. Otherwise, Harper and McCutchen should add a level of production and stability unlike anything in the outfield last season. Add that to Realmuto’s all-around game at catcher, Segura’s major upgrade at shortstop, Robertson’s presence in the ‘pen, and you’re looking at a remarkably better team than 2018’s 80-win club.

Pre-Bryce, FanGraphs projected Philadelphia to finish in fourth place, 83-79; Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA similarly had it in fourth, at 85-77. Both, however, expected the division to be bunched closely; FanGraphs projects an extra two wins to be the difference between fourth place and second place with a wild card, BP has one extra win as the difference to qualify for a wild card. Harper, on his own, playing at or near his floor, could very easily be those one or two wins—or he could be more, which just might be the division.  

And with the structure of the contract, Philadelphia remains under the luxury tax threshold, potentially able to build the team out even more in years to come. This might be stupid money, but they’ve played it pretty smart.