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The Phillies are in danger of blowing Bryce Harper’s prime (and others)

A number of really good players are in the primes of their careers, but they could be wasted.

Philadelphia Phillies v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

Bryce Harper had a pretty doggone good 2020 season, folks. Sure, there were some down times, namely an 18-game stretch where he went without a home run and batted a meager .136, but he was still good enough to finish as one of the best hitters in the National League and, as a result, is up for a prestigious off-season award.

Here’s who he’s up against.

NL Hank Aaron Award Nominees

Player fWAR OPS wRC+ HR
Player fWAR OPS wRC+ HR
Juan Soto 2.4 1.185 200 13
Freddie Freeman 3.4 1.102 187 13
Dom Smith 1.8 0.993 165 10
Bryce Harper 1.6 0.962 151 13
Corey Seager 1.9 0.943 151 15
Manny Machado 2.6 0.95 148 16
Paul Goldschmidt 2.1 0.883 146 6

It’s a pretty stacked group of players, and Harper is unlikely to win. Nevertheless, his age-27 season was a productive one in which he hit .268/.420/.542 in 58 games (244 plate appearances) with a team-leading 13 homers and 41 runs scored. He brought his strikeout rate down from 26.1 percent last year to 17.6 percent this season and saw his walk rate jump by five-and-a-half points. Over a full season, Harper would have been worth 4.3 Wins Above Replacement, which while not an MVP-level of excellence is still quite good. He is in the prime of his career, with hopefully four or five more years of top-notch productivity ahead of him.

Bryce Harper is the reason the Phillies cannot afford to rebuild or move backwards. They have already wasted two years of his prime and are in danger of losing even more.

But it’s not just Harper. Aaron Nola, for all his September struggles, had another outstanding season as the team’s No. 1 starter. He went 5-5 with a 3.28 ERA and a 3.19 FIP, saw his strikeout rate jump from 26.9 percent in 2019 to 33.2 percent this year, all while his walk rate dropped from 9.4 percent a year ago to 8.0 percent in 2020. He is also 27.

There’s No. 2 starter Zack Wheeler, who had an even better season than Nola. He went 4-2 with a 2.92 ERA and a 3.22 FIP, gave up a staggeringly low 0.38 home runs per nine innings and saw a big uptick in his ground ball rate, from 43.2 percent last year with the Mets to 55.9 percent this season. At 30 years old, he has even fewer years left in his prime than Harper or Nola.

First baseman Rhys Hoskins bounced back nicely from a brutal 2019 campaign with a solid 2020. Before he missed the last three weeks of the season with a damaged elbow, he hit .245/.384/.503 with 10 HRs and 35 runs scored in just 41 games. He is also 27. Shortstop Jean Segura was 30 years old this year and improved on a dreadful 2019 as well. He only hit .266 but saw a decent increase in his on-base percentage, from .323 to .347, and he more than doubled his walk rate, from 4.9 percent to 10.6 percent. He’s under contract for another three years with a team option for a fourth, but the prime of his career is slowly slipping by, too.

Players like Alec Bohm, Adam Haseley, Roman Quinn, Zach Eflin, Spencer Howard and relievers Connor Brogdon and JoJo Romero will be counted on to provide some youthful depth, but it’s clear the Phillies will be substantially worse if they do not either re-sign J.T. Realmuto and Didi Gregorius or find viable replacements for both. In the case of Realmuto, there simply isn’t one. They also need a No. 3 starter to replace the departed Jake Arrieta, and must reconfigure what was a historically bad bullpen.

One of the reasons former general manager Matt Klentak was removed from his duties was his failure to develop pitching. The team currently has very little in that department, a disturbing fact after a long-torturous rebuild, but they’ve also failed to draft or trade for young impact bats outside of Alec Bohm. When a team fails at developing its own talent, the only way it can compete is to spend money. Up until this year, the Phillies did that, just up to the $208 million luxury tax.

Certainly, $208 million should be enough to field a competitive, playoff-bound baseball team, especially during a season in which three additional teams from each league reached the postseason. And yet the Phillies were not one of them. If Middleton truly wants to win, he’s left with one of two options.

He can either keep spending, or watch Bryce Harper spend another year or two of his prime on the outside of the postseason looking in.

It’s the bed the Phillies have made, through years of bad drafts, poor player development and trades that were fine in small ways but never found the “value in the margins” that former manager Gabe Kapler always talked about. The Realmuto-for-Sixto Sanchez trade certainly gave the Phils two prime years of the best catcher in baseball, but a trip to October baseball remained out of reach. And now, with a team president in Andy MacPhail who has admittedly had little to do with baseball operations over the last five years, an interim general manager in Ned Rice who is said to be very much like his predecessor, and an owner in Middleton who seems more interested in saving money than “getting his bleeping trophy back,” the Phils are in real danger of wasting the best years of a player they spent $330 million on two off-seasons ago.