The more time goes by, the more pessimistic some Phillies fans are getting about their team acquiring either Bryce Harper or Manny Machado (MacHarper, as it were). There has already been a disconcerting tweet that both superstars would prefer the New York Yankees over the Phillies, but (A) it’s the media and, (B) it was reported by a New York journalist, so take from it what you will. Regardless, the possibility certainly does exist that the Phils will open the season without having landing either one of the prized free agents. What then? Where exactly would that leave the hopeful contenders and their fanbase?
There’s still the moves they’ve already made, which by no means should be understated. The additions of Jean Segura and Andrew McCutchen may appear as minor upgrades on the surface, but the impact they’ll have on this team should be profound.
Adding McCutchen moves Rhys Hoskins out of left field where he was historically bad. According to Baseball Reference, the Phillies left field position was responsible for baseball’s second worst Rdrs at the position. Putting a plus-defender like Cutch out there will be a dramatic improvement over last season. Hoskins will move to his natural position of First Base where he’ll be replacing Carlos Santana, which should be a wash in terms of defense.
The Phillies weren’t very proficient at shortstop last year either, having posted a -23 Rdrs at the position, third worst in the sport. Segura, while not Ozzie Smith, is no slouch with the glove at short and as the Mariners primary shortstop last season he helped the team to an 8 Rdrs at the position, seventh best in baseball
With just those two additions of Segura and McCutchen, the Philies upgraded three defensive positions and for a team as poor on defense as the Phillies were last year, that’s massive.
There’s even a component of offensive upgrade with the moves. Without getting to into it, Jean Segura’s contact skills will greatly benefit the Phillies, a team fairly well stocked with players who can, and will, work a walk. But while a walk isn’t an out and it does get you on base it won’t necessarily knock in a runner in scoring position. The Phils needed someone who can hit the way Segura can. Segura’s contact rate of 88.3% was fifth of all qualified batters in baseball last season; the Phillies didn’t have a single player in the top 30.
So while losing out on MacHarper would not be ideal for the Phillies, it’s not like the entire offseason would be a waste. They were competitive to a point last season and with the improvements already made they could easily be more competitive in 2019. What they won’t be without MacHarper is a team considered to be positioned for a deep postseason run—please note that it’s “considered to be,” not that “they won’t be.”
Losing out on those two would force them to turn their sights to next offseason, when two marquee third basemen, a position of serious need for the Phils, are scheduled to hit the market. Either Nolan Arenado or Anthony Rendon would be comparable to having landed MacHarper, with the primary difference being age. While neither is 26 like MacHarper, both would still be on the right side of 30 and with regards to production, either could go head to head with the now available stars. From 2015 to 2018, Machado is 9th in fWAR and Harper is 11th; Arenado sits right between them at 10th and Rendon is just a bit back at 16th - and his ranking was accomplished in 519 games where Machado needed 637. Comparable.
And then there’s the off-season following the 2020 season. “I prefer New York over Philly” is not something we’re predicting to hear Mike Trout say. He’d be two years older than either Machado or Harper are right now but by any measure he’s a better player than either of them. Contemplate for a moment how unlikely that may seem, where you’re talking about two of the absolute best players in baseball and saying there’s another player that’s decisively better. On that same list of fWAR used above, Trout is far and away in first. Actually, MacHarper combined have 42.3 fWAR, Trout alone has 35.6.
MacHarper have been great baseball players and that can’t really be denied. But both come with their share of red flags, whether it’s questions of character or hustle like Machado or injury risk or straight up non-performance like Harper, who’s only eclipsed a five fWAR season once in his seven seasons (Trout’s lowest fWAR season was 6.9 and in his seven seasons he’s only had two with less than 9 fWAR). In fact, Mike Trout is the only player in baseball who’s a no-doubt-about-it type player and he’ll be a Phillie in due time.
No. It’s not “NOW.” And when looking at it from an “instant gratification, I don’t want to wait” standpoint, it’s not great. But in the “big picture, long term” point-of-view, not getting either Machado or Harper this offseason and instead landing Nolan Arenado after the 2019 season and then adding Mike Trout after the 2020 season has the potential to be much more impactful for the Phillies. So if it doesn’t happen, don’t sweat it. It may just be a blessing in disguise.