PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Bryce Harper is kind of a big deal in Philly.
No, not just with his colossal contract — Harper and the Phillies agreed Thursday to a $330 million, 13-year deal that is the largest contract in baseball history.
But as an attraction.
Harper zipped to the top of the list as the city’s most popular athlete, adding a dash of star power while raising payroll, projections and prices to a franchise that has lagged in popularity in the shared sports complex behind Super Bowl champions, a Process and a mascot.
“One of the best players in baseball,” Phillies manager Gabe Kapler said.
With Harper set to take his cuts in Philly, the question is raised: Are the Phillies the team to beat in the NL East?
That’s a clown question, bro.
The betting odds shifted faster than the Astros’ infield once Harper landed in Philly. The Phillies’ odds at winning the division went from 2-1 to 5-4; the pennant from 7-1 to 4-1 and the World Series from 12-1 to 8-1.
After leading their division in early August, the Phillies went 16-33 over the final 49 games of last season and at 80-82 finished with a losing record for the sixth straight season.
The Phillies haven’t been a playoff threat since the 2007-11 heyday when Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley anchored five postseason teams, back-to-back NL pennants and the 2008 World Series championship. The Phillies ballpark was a hotter summer attraction than the Jersey shore and the franchise set an NL record with 257 straight sellouts from 2009-2012.
Last year? Tickets could be had on the secondary market for the price of a ballpark hot dog at first pitch and all the bells and whistles of added fan-friendly attractions couldn’t generate enthusiasm. Ticket prices on StubHub skyrocketed faster than a Harper homer on Thursday once tweets of his impending arrival hit the city — the cheap seats start at $100 for opening day. Phillies fans went old school and left work early to hit ticket windows and score face value tickets on the cheap (if not resell at a tidy profit) for his debut.
Just wait until his jersey goes on sale.
Harper wore No. 34 in Washington but that number hasn’t been worn by a Phillies player since Hall of Famer Roy Halladay died piloting a plane in 2017.
Harper, who makes the short list with Pete Rose, Jim Thome and Cliff Lee as biggest free-agent signings in franchise history, is one of the few pay-to-watch players in baseball. And Phillies fans — who cheered fellow free-agent Manny Machado during the team’s public flirtation with the San Diego Padres star — will pay stupid money for their seats. But he’s not the only new face in Philly worth watching.
“I certainly think that the city of Philadelphia would embrace Bryce Harper,” Kapler said. “I think he would be very happy in this city because our fans care deeply about winning. Their care about winning was evidenced throughout this entire offseason, obviously paying close attention to every move that (general manager) Matt (Klentak) made, and we made a lot of moves to get ready for this spring training.”
A 26-year-old All-Star who had spent his entire big league career with the Washington Nationals, Harper topped the $325 million, 13-year agreement outfielder Giancarlo Stanton reached before the 2015 season with the Miami Marlins.
Harper isn’t even the only MVP and All-Star added to the lineup this season. The Phillies were trending toward a playoff team before Harper signed as the fattened the roster with the additions of 2013 NL MVP Andrew McCutchen for $50 million over three years and 2011 All-Star reliever David Robertson for $23 million over two years, and acquiring 2018 NL All-Star catcher J.T. Realmuto and two-time All-Star shortstop Jean Segura.
Harper, Realmuto and Segura were All-Stars last season.
“We thought we were a complete team. Now, we’re even more of a complete team,” McCutchen said. “It’s going to be fun.”
There’s tons of fun on the Philly sports scene these days and Harper was added to a city roster brimming with stars; Carson Wentz, Gritty, Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and even Flyers rookie sensation Carter Hart have the most pessimistic of fans pumped for the decade ahead.
Or maybe the next 13 years.
Phillies kids club members will start paying off student loans by the time Harper’s contract is finished — one the franchise can only hope pays off with a few more World Series banners added to their meager total.
Aaron Nola, who finished third in last year’s NL Cy Young voting, and a healthy Jake Arrieta should form a stout 1-2 top of the rotation and Zach Efflin, Nick Pivetta, and Vince Velasquez all need to take a step forward this season for the Phillies to contend. Rhys Hoskins, Odubel Herrera, Maikel Franco and Cesar Hernandez return to give the Phillies one of the best top-to-bottom lineups in the National League.
Kapler said Harper would likely hit third or fourth in the lineup, and the analytics say he should thrive in hitter-friendly Philly. Harper has batted .268 with 14 home runs, 32 RBIs, a .365 on-base percentage, a .564 slugging percentage, a .930 OPS and 48 hits in 50 career games at Citizens Bank Park.
Washington took him with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 amateur draft and called him up to the majors less than two years later at age 19. He would go on to become the 2012 NL Rookie of the Year for a Nationals club that won its first division title and made its postseason debut. Last year, he hit 34 homers and produced a career-high 100 RBIs while walking 130 times, although his batting average dipped to .249. He started more than a third of his games in center field instead of his usual spot in right because of injuries to teammates.
Before Harper gets too comfy in Philly, a visit with an old friend. Harper and the Phillies play April 2-3 against Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg at Nationals Park.
It’s a chance to wave goodbye to the only baseball city he’s called home — before the brash Harper gets set to mash in Philly.