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Phillies still on top of the Bryce Harper madness

Another team is rumored to be in the mix for Harper, but the Phillies remain, as they always have been, the lead contender.

MLB: Miami Marlins at Washington Nationals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

It’s spring training, and the Phillies’ brass could not be more ecstatic.

Just look at those faces: John Middleton, catching a whiff of the seal carcass being pecked apart by gulls further down the beach; Gabe Kapler, thinking about the thick bounty of kale waiting for him in the crisper of his condo’s fridge.

This is a team that is ready for baseball. Just look at the smile on Dylan Cozens’ face after he put a baseball somewhere no one will ever find it again. Nick Williams is launching, projectiles, too. Scott Kingery is looking slick and Maikel Franco is looking powerful, giving an extremely early bit of suspense to the third base competition on the Phillies’ roster.

It’s all the guys we’ve spent the winter barely talking about, and their fun in the sun is singularly enjoyable, too, in the way that exhibition games are, in that exciting springtime vacuum. No one here is thinking about everything that is happening in Clearwater in the context of a major, looming free agent signing at all. [Spoons heaping glob of cottage cheese straight from container into quivering mouth]

Folks, that’s not true. What is true has been pretty tricky to track down over the last few months, and especially over the last few days. Middleton’s plane went to Las Vegas, a meeting was had, the plane left, and what followed was an emotional scattershot that had people with bloodshot eyes staring at radar screens and assurances from the uninformed like me that the Phillies’ offseason-long pursuit of Bryce Harper would soon come to its logical conclusion: The Phillies have the money to pay him, the space to put him, and a team to contend alongside him. All that’s missing is the signature.

But we’ve heard in short, panicky outbursts over the winter—mostly from the same, repeating source—that the Phillies have not been alone in their wooing of Harper. Their competition has shifted among a veritable who’s who of NL West short-term contract offerers: The Padres and the Giants have wriggled into the situation, trying to take advantage of its interminable length, but Middleton’s plane landing in Vegas indicated to many that these were not realistic endgames. However, this morning, the sun rose—wherever the sun is these days—over a world that was not ready to grant the Phillies sole ownership of the Harper narrative quite yet.

A vindicated Jon Heyman woke up today to the Dodgers slipping back into the rumor mill, making him right and the rest of us all wrong, once and for all. The Scott Boras super-fan has spent the winter shipping Harper with just about every team, real and imagined, in an effort to paint the free agent outfielder’s market as the raucous floor of Wall Street, with papers flying and phones ringing off the hook, and not as what it really is, which is John Middleton staring out the window of a luxurious high-rise at the horizon and wondering how much it would cost to buy the sun.

The Dodgers, if you’ll recall, began casually shoving outfielders off their roster after the MLB Winter Meetings in late December: Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp were sent to Cincinnati in one of the offseason’s first notable trades. The Washington Post, a newspaper that has not taken its split with Bryce Harper well, said the deal moved the Dodgers to the “front of the Bryce Harper sweepstakes,” only for L.A. to go silent in the months that followed. Then they signed free agent outfielder A.J. Pollock and everyone logically crossed them off the list of potential landing spots.

But now, the Dodgers are back, with a rumored short-term deal in hand, just like the rest of their NL West cohorts. “There were reports,” goes the story, “that other clubs had sent delegations to meet with Harper in Vegas on Saturday as well, but that Philadelphia may have been in position to close a deal by Tuesday.”

Tuesday is now a day away, and with Dodgers manager Dave Roberts having been spotted in Las Vegas (Though the Inquirer’s Matt Breen says, “The Phillies were the only team to meet with Harper this weekend”), we’re forced to ask the question: Why didn’t we see his plane on the runway? What’d he do; take a commercial flight, like a peasant? C’mon, Dodgers; there’s “short-term deal” and then there’s just “coming up short.” Try to keep up. Let’s go, Bryce. We’re outta here. [Tries to throw arm over Bryce Harper’s shoulders and lead him toward Clearwater but is easily shrugged off and shoved to ground].

People love the idea of Harper choosing a team on the west coast, in order for him to be a two hour or so flight from Vegas, his hometown, at all times. That’s not the craziest thing, but is being a plane ride away from his family and friends really worth taking a type of deal that he’s long been said to not want?

Look, we don’t have to run through all the reasons this does and does not make sense. Mostly, it doesn’t. But by saying that the Phillies are the only logical conclusion to this does not mean that these proceedings always follow a path dictated by logic. Maybe Harper got stung by a bee in the Philly airport once and that’s been his chief hang-up this whole time. Maybe he really doesn’t want to change time zones when he flies home. Maybe this deal’s been agreed upon for months and we’ve all been hornswaggled into talking about it just to stir intrigue. Maybe we are all Scott Boras’ playthings.

But at the end of another long day of smashing our heads into the head-shaped dent in the wall, the Phillies will still be the top contender, barring a quite dramatic change of events. One thing the Phillies have succeeded at thus far far is establishing themselves as the only choice for Harper that checks all the boxes. Even if he signs elsewhere, we will have gone through the entire process assuming they’d be the winners. I’m not saying that’s a consolation prize, because it most certainly is not, I’m just saying that if another team leaps over them at the finish line, it’ll be after the Phillies had led for the entire race.

Of course, that means nothing without knowing what’s going on inside Harper’s head, but the Phillies will remain his most sensible option until his signature appears on someone else’s paper work. Months ago, that “someone else” was the Nationals. Weeks ago, it was the Padres, then the Nationals again. Days ago, it was the Giants. And today, it will be the Dodgers.

Happy Monday.