At the end, the high-water mark for the Phillies turned out to be at the beginning, when the new-look squad fronted by $330 million man Bryce Harper and bearing World Series hopes (or at least Sports Illustrated cover expectations) stomped all over his old team and looked to the world like a real contender. And though Philadelphia managed to hang on to that image for a few weeks longer, what was supposed to be a triumphant year instead turned into the tide slowly receding, washing away first championship aspirations, then division title dreams, and finally even the chance at merely appearing in the NL wild-card game.
On Tuesday, the Phillies’ season came to a quiet conclusion with their elimination from the playoff race at the hands—perhaps fittingly—of the Nationals, as Harper’s former teammates dealt a death blow in the first game of a doubleheader. A team that brashly threw around cash and prospects this winter in a bid to build a super-club instead sees its playoff drought stretch to eight years, the fifth-longest in the sport. It’s a galling disappointment for Philadelphia, which despite staying above .500 all season watched its playoff hopes trickle to zero over the course of four long, loopy months.
But through April and May, Phillies fans could feel good about the best team that stupid money could buy, built on the backs of Harper and fellow offseason All-Star additions J.T. Realmuto, Jean Segura, Andrew McCutchen and David Robertson along with Aaron Nola and Rhys Hoskins. Philadelphia won its first four games—including Harper’s return to D.C., in which he was doused in boos and responded with a huge homer and an emphatic wave—and weathered some early bumps to finish May with a three-game lead in the NL East.
But from there, things crumbled quickly. June was marred by a stretch in which the Phillies lost 11 of 13, including sweeps by a resurgent Washington and lowly Miami. Control of the division slipped away to the Braves in the middle of that month and was never regained. The trade deadline came and went without reinforcements. Things briefly picked up in mid-August with a sweep of the Cubs, highlighted by a titanic walk-off grand slam off the bat of Harper. But consistency and momentum eluded Philadelphia: The team never had a winning streak longer than four games all year and hasn’t won three or more in a row since that Chicago series.
All the while, players dropped like flies. McCutchen was lost for the year in early June. Jake Arrieta gamely tried to pitch through elbow pain—and did so poorly—before shutting it down in late August. A refurbished bullpen never was at full strength: Robertson threw all of 6 ⅔ innings before blowing out his elbow. Seranthony Dominguez, Tommy Hunter, Pat Neshek, Adam Morgan, Zach Eflin … the butcher’s bill stretches on and on. As the Phillies limp to the finish line, they’ll do so with some $80 million in salary stuffed on the injured list. Few teams took a beating quite like they did.
Few teams were also so ill-equipped to deal with those aches and pains. For all the stars they imported and the ones they’ve grown at home, the Phillies were sunk as much by injuries as they were by a lack of depth. The rotation behind Nola—who struggled to begin the year and again to end it—featured all the former top prospects that the organization’s lauded farm system had produced, yet none of Eflin, Nick Pivetta, Vince Velasquez or Jerad Eickhoff proved up to snuff. Similarly, there was no help to be found offensively to buttress Harper, Realmuto and Hoskins, particularly once McCutchen went down and opened a hole in the outfield that the team could never adequately close. After another season where his numbers failed to match his pedigree, Maikel Franco’s time in Philadelphia looks finished. A torrid early summer stretch for Scott Kingery gave way to a brutal second half (.231/.296/.430). The once vaunted outfield trio of Roman Quinn, Nick Williams and Aaron Altherr delivered nothing. As the year wore on, the Phillies were reduced to starting filler like Sean Rodriguez, Logan Morrison and Brad Miller. That’s not how championship teams are built.
It’s likely tempting for some both inside Philadelphia and out to blame this disappointing year on Harper, if only because he draws the biggest paychecks and was brought in expressly to help turn the Phillies from unrealized potential to champion club. Yet while Harper won’t appear in any MVP debates, he put together a season that was, on the whole, plenty good, almost dead-on matching his final year in Washington. You can complain all you want that $27 million a year should buy more than a 123 OPS+ and 3.2 bWAR, and maybe it should. But those are still strong figures. Besides, it’s not Harper’s fault that Philadelphia’s player development has gone so awry, or that the entire bullpen got Thanos-snapped, or that second-year manager Gabe Kapler continues to seem in over his head at the helm, or that the front office’s only attempt to fix a beleaguered pitching staff midseason was to trade for Jason Vargas and Drew Smyly, which is like trying to patch a stab wound with chewing gum.
The question now for the Phillies—same as for their Senior Circuit partners in failing to meet expectations over on Chicago’s North Side—is what comes next. For better or worse, this core will return in full next year, which both gives the team a chance to run it back with a talented group but also limits flexibility in addressing its issues. Pitching help is a must; so is deepening the lineup. But with a payroll already projected to hit $200 million before a single move is made, will ownership have the stomach to spend big for a second straight winter after the first attempt resulted in so little?
They should, in part because the Phillies have no other choice. It’s possible that the big changes in Philadelphia this offseason come not on the roster but involving those in charge, with Kapler and perhaps general manager Matt Klentak taking the fall for a roster that couldn’t rise to the lofty expectations placed upon it. Regardless, all that’s left now for the Phillies is to close out 2019 and hope that, come 2020, the crest of the wave can extend all the way to October, instead of crashing meekly upon the shore in September.