The dust has finally settled on the wild free agency chase for Bryce Harper. After it seemed that half of the teams in Major League Baseball were mentioned as having a shot at signing him this offseason, the Philadelphia Phillies, who were the favorites all along, came away with the prize. Now it’s time to assess how the addition of Bryce Harper affects the Phillies’ odds this year.
It got a little dicey at the end of the process for the Phils, who had promised to spend “stupid” money in the offseason. They were faced with the very real possibility of coming up empty on the two main prizes on the market, Harper and Manny Machado.
Machado’s surprise signing with the Padres put even more pressure on the Phils. And with super-agent Scott Boras pulling the strings, Harper ended up meeting with some West Coast squads in the final days.
But the Phillies won out by offering a long-term deal that will keep him well-paid, guaranteed, until he is almost 40 years old. Whether or not this was a wise deal for player or team is the matter for another discussion. We’re here to decide whether or not Harper tips the scales toward the Phillies odds of winning big this year, which will come into play if you’re making proposition bets on the outcome.
The Phillies were a team that were already expected to contend even before they grabbed Harper. A surprising rebound in 2018, where they were in the thick of the division race for much of the season, gave fans a lot of hope. They then went out and added some excellent veteran players, such as Jean Segura, David Robertson, Andrew McCutchen and J.T. Realmuto.
Adding Harper might have seemed like the icing on the already overflowing cake. But this is not a team without holes. In particular, question marks about the depth of their starting pitching loom over the squad, especially in a division that contains some of the most imposing starting rotations in the sport.
And that’s another reason why people shouldn’t go anointing the Phillies as the favorites just yet. Their division, the National League East, is one of the most rugged in baseball. The National League, as a whole, looks like a demanding gauntlet, one where the Phillies will have to work hard just to make the postseason, let alone to get to the World Series and win it all.
Finally, there’s the question of Harper himself. Some see him as a generational talent who will rise to the occasion in his new situation and lead the Phils to the promised land. Others look at his most recent, somewhat underwhelming seasons and chant out “OVER-RATED.”
We will take a look at all of those factors as we assess how the addition of Bryce Harper affects the Phillies’ odds this year. In this article, we’ll examine not just Harper, but the Phillies as a whole, while also looking at how they stack up against the competition. Finally, we’ll look at the odds for them to win the division, the National League, and the World Series, and we’ll give our picks on whether or not they are good bets in any of those categories.
Looking at Bryce Harper
Bryce Harper might be the most polarizing player in the game today. That’s why not everyone was so quick to crown the Phillies upon his signing. It’s important to understand what we’re dealing with in terms of him as a player before we can assess his impact on the Phillies’ odds.
There are two skills that Harper possesses that have been consistently displayed throughout much of his career. The first is plate discipline. He has amassed over 100 walks in three of his last four years, missing that mark only in his injury-riddled 2017 campaign.
Last year he walked 130 times, which is rarefied air that usually only Joey Votto approaches. He has never been one to stretch the strike zone in an effort to gild his numbers. In that respect, he could set a good example for some of the Phillies free-swingers.
The other skill that has been relatively consistent is his ability to launch the ball out of the park. His career-high for homers came in his magical 2015 campaign, when he bashed 42. Other than his clunker of a season (by his standards) in 2016, the power has been solid; he’s coming off 34 bombs a year ago.
He did all of that while playing his home games in Washington, which is a relatively neutral park in terms of home runs. But he comes now to Philly, which is somewhat of a home run-happy park. The fit between player and ballpark looks pretty smooth.
Harper has as much name recognition as anybody playing the game today. Yet there’s a reason that he isn’t mentioned in the same breath as his buddy Mike Trout when it comes to people talking about the best player in the sport of baseball. Quite simply, there are holes in his game.
The big one has been the fact that his batting average has been all over the map. Check out his batting averages the past four seasons: .330, .243, .319, .249. You could say that he’s due for another high average this season based on the pattern, but that’s a big question mark.
Whenever you see someone with issues keeping his batting average high, it’s usually strikeouts that are the culprit. And that’s certainly the case with Harper, who undoubtedly has a lot of swing and miss in his game.
The number of walks helps to mitigate the occasionally low batting averages, keeping his on-base percentages high. But it is still problematic when one of your top run producers can’t put the ball in play.
Perhaps that’s why Harper has never been a big RBI guy. Last year he crawled over the century mark with 100, and that was a career-high.
On top of that, Harper is only a so-so defender. That might surprise some people, perhaps because they equate his willingness to crash into walls with being a good defender. But the defensive metrics show a guy who is only barely above league average and, last season, he was actually well below that standard.
He is a decent source of stolen bases. Last year he picked up 13; his career high came in 2016 with 21.
But, again, the metrics aren’t that kind to him when they factor in things like taking extra bases. For a guy who is on the bases as much as he tends to be, this can be an issue.
Finally, we come to that most controversial of statistics: WAR. WAR, or Wins Above Replacement, is the ultimate stat for those who believe in sabermetrics.
It’s something that is becoming more and more accepted in the game these days, by fans and front office types alike. And it is a stat that hasn’t been that kind recently to Harper.
His high-water mark was his monster 2015 season, when he scored a ridiculously impressive 10.0 WAR. That was a time period when a legitimate debate was forming about whether he or Trout should be considered the game’s best. But what followed after for Harper settled that debate: WAR’s of 1.5, 4.7 and 1.3 the last three years.
Obviously, a 4.7 WAR is nothing to sneeze at. But the other two marks suggest that Harper was barely better than the league average in those years. As a comparison, Nick Williams, the guy whom Harper will be replacing in right field in Philly, posted an 0.9 WAR a season ago in over 200 less plate appearances.
And that’s why it is so hard to say what Harper is bringing to the table in Philly. Is he the superstar of 2015, the All-Star level guy of 2017, or the player who didn’t tilt the needle all that much in two of the last three years?
It is an argument that won’t be settled until he gets on the field in a few weeks. What’s for certain is that he is somewhat of a shaky bet, and that means the Phillies’ chances are shaky as well.
Scouting the Phillies
You might not know it from all of the press the last week or so, but Bryce Harper will not be the only player on the field for Philadelphia. Seriously, baseball is a difficult sport for one man to carry an entire team. Luckily, for those who are bullish on Philadelphia, there is a lot to like on this roster besides Harper.
The Phillies made surgical moves in the offseason to address most of their weak areas. As a result, they are, on paper anyway, a much stronger team than the one that finished 80-82 a year ago, in third place 10 games behind division champ Atlanta. Third place is a bit misleading, as they battled the Braves for much of the year before a big fade in the final weeks dropped them behind Washington in the standings.
Last season, the shortstop position was problematic. Prospect J.P. Crawford was hurt early, and Scott Kingery, whom the Phillies signed to a contract extension as a rookie, failed as the everyday option. The acquisition of Jean Segura, a reliable source of batting average and stolen bases in his time with Milwaukee and Seattle, solves that problem.
Last season, the Phils tried to make power-hitting Rhys Hoskins a left fielder, but his defense left a lot to be desired. Addressing that, the Phils signed Andrew McCutchen. While no longer a superstar, McCutchen is still a tough out, with a little power and speed left in the tank.
That means that he’ll move right into left field, allowing Hoskins to take over for the departed Carlos Santana at the much less-demanding position of first base. Don’t be surprised if Hoskins’ offense, which was already quite potent, takes a big jump as a result of not having to worry about shagging deep flies in the gap.
It’s hard to say catcher was a problem area last year for Philadelphia, with young Jorge Alfaro doing a decent job, even posting one of the highest WARs on the squad. But there is no doubt that the trade for J.T. Realmuto is a huge upgrade. After all, he’s the best all-around backstop in the game, durable and in his prime.
Finally, the addition of David Robertson, a proven big-game reliever with the Yankees over the years, deepens the bullpen considerably. While manager Gabe Kapler isn’t one to define roles too specifically in terms of his relievers, it’s likely that he’ll use Robertson in the toughest jams, saving last year’s surprise rookie performer Seranthony Dominguez for the ninth. And that doesn’t even mention talented relievers like Pat Neshek, Hector Neris and Tommy Hunter.
The lineup is as deep as it gets with all of those additions. Second baseman Cesar Hernandez could be utilized at the top of the order again, or he could move down with Segura and McCutchen sitting in the top two spots. Realmuto could move up into the top three or be used as protection for Hoskins in the fifth spot.
And that’s one area where Harper really helps. Last season, the Phillies lacked that prototypical #3 hitter, and Harper, when he’s grooving, is among the best in that role. No pitcher is going to want to face this group on a hot Philly day when the ball is carrying well.
In Aaron Nola, the Phillies have one of the game’s top young starting pitchers. He built upon his improvements in 2017 to become a true ace. In an era where pitchers who pitch effectively and deep into ball games every fifth day are extremely rare, the Phils are lucky to have Nola to fill that role.
But that’s about the only settled thing about Philadelphia’s starting rotation. Jake Arrieta was signed last year to be that second dominant force, but he instead looked very little like the guy who was a Cy Young winner in Chicago. Arrieta’s diminishing velocity and lessened ability to miss bats is a grave concern for the Phillies in terms of trying to recoup their investment.
The next three guys in the rotation are Nick Pivetta, Vince Velasquez, and Zach Elfin. All three have shown flashes of excellence, and all three can boast higher-than-average strikeout rates. But their ERAs last season were, respectively, 4.77. 4.85 and 4.36.
That just isn’t going to cut it if the Phillies are going to fulfill all of these lofty expectations. When you also consider that Arrieta is declining and Nola could expect a little negative regression after his monster season, you can understand the concern.
Velasquez, Elfin and Pivetta all have peripheral statistics that suggest there could be better things in store. It’s probably a good bet that one of them does indeed have a breakout season and becomes a solid option. But expecting more than that seems like folly.
As a result, many people have talked about the Phillies perhaps going after lefty Dallas Keuchel, the top free agent still unsigned. There’s also the trade deadline as a possibility for improvement. But the Phillies have already dealt some of their top youngsters to get what they have, so that solution might not be doable.
The bottom line is that this rotation, as it is now, falls below the standard of what you would expect from one of the best teams in baseball. When you throw in the fact that the team defense, while it should improve, still seems shaky, you basically are looking at a team that might have a hard time limiting runs.
NL East Competition
According to BetOnline, the Phillies are now the favorites to win the NL East at +175. They are tied with the Chicago Cubs as the most tepid favorite among the divisions. And the big reason for that is the strength of their specific division.
Many thought, when last season ended, that the departure of Harper, if he did indeed end up with the Phils, would turn the NL East into a two-team dogfight between Philadelphia and Atlanta. But that assumed that the rest of the division was willing to lay down and die. And the Mets and the Nationals showed they had no intention of doing that.
Washington may have lost out on Harper. But they beefed up the rotation, already stout with Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, by adding strikeout machine Patrick Corbin from Arizona. That gives them three dominators in the rotation to Philly’s one.
The Nats also added Brian Dozier to play second. Most exciting of all is the fact that Victor Robles, a hot prospect, will likely season start the season in the outfield alongside of Juan Soto, last year’s breakout rookie. Add on the fact that this team will be inspired to prove that they can rise above Harper’s departure, and the Nationals, at +275 odds to win the division, could be dangerous.
Then there are the Mets, whom many thought would be in rebuilding mode after an ugly 2018. But new GM Brodie Van Wagenen decided to go for it while the team’s elite pitching talent was still in place and in their prime. As a result, New York added significantly to their core from last year.
Among the new faces in the lineup are Wilson Ramos, Robinson Cano and Jed Lowrie. The back of the bullpen is now patrolled by Edwin Diaz and the returning Jeurys Familia. And the Big Four of Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Zack Wheeler, and Steven Matz are healthy and ready to mow down opposing hitters, making the Mets, as a +350 fourth choice, an interesting play.
Finally, there is the team that won the division a year ago, the so-called “Baby” Braves. With incendiary young talents like Ronald Acuna, Ozzie Albies, and Mike Foltynewicz, the Braves ascended much faster than anybody expected they would in 2018. They’ve added Josh Donaldson to beef up the middle of the order and bat behind Freddie Freeman.
There have been some early training camp injury concerns that have some people worried. Others may think that the rest of the division powers have passed them by with their busy offseason trading and spending. But it seems like Atlanta is maybe getting overlooked as the third choice here at +300.
As you can tell, the Phillies are not going to have it easy, even as the favorite, in this division. You can throw out the Marlins (+10000). But everybody else in this group is a tough out.
National League Competition
The Phillies currently sit at +450 to win the National League. That makes them the second choice behind the defending NL champ Dodgers, who sit at +400. It’s understandable that the oddsmakers would think that the road to the World Series goes through LA.
The Dodgers are maybe a little more vulnerable than you might think. Remember that they barely escaped with the National League West crown a year ago. And Clayton Kershaw is already dealing with injury issues after they hounded the ace all year long in 2018.
Still, nobody has more lineup or pitching depth than the Dodgers, with veteran stars and up-and-coming talents galore. In the NL Central, the Cubs are the favorite and are at +700 to win the NL. A healthy Kris Bryant would help, but this team has far more question marks than the 2006 world champs could claim.
We’ve already spoken about the deep NL East. In addition to the Cubs, the Cardinals and Brewers from the Central both come in at 10-1 or less to win the league. Throw in Colorado from the West at 18-1, and you can see how getting to the postseason in the National League is going to be a bear this year.
After all, you’ve got nine legitimate contenders for five spots up for grabs, two of which will be in the one-and-done Wild Card game. Again, this illustrates the depth of competition that the Phillies will have to overcome to be NL Champs with Harper leading the way.
American League Competition
As it stands now, the four main competitors for the World Series from the AL seem to be the World Champion Red Sox, the Astros (champs in 2017), the Yankees, and the Indians. Cleveland seems to be a notch below the other three, but they play in an extremely weak division. As such, they are almost guaranteed to be in the playoffs, where anything can happen.
One of the Red Sox or Yankees will have to play in the dreaded Wild Card game, so that makes them a risk. But it’s a stretch to see a team like Oakland, Tampa Bay or a dark horse contender going much further than that.
If you’re Cleveland or Houston, you have the advantage of not having to work so hard to get to the postseason. And that gives them an edge in terms of having their team in peak form. That’s a luxury that no team in the National League, including the Phillies, is likely to have.
Making the Picks for Bryce Harper and the Phillies
I honestly see the Phillies as one of the two wild card teams, with the Mets coming out as the surprise champ with all that pitching. That means that I wouldn’t play them as the favorite here.
If you are going to make a play on the Phils, I feel like their odds on winning the NL give you the most value. They could sneak through the Wild Card, and, by then, you would have to assume that they will have upgraded their rotation enough that their lineup and bullpen can do the rest. Take a stab at the 9-2 price at the betting site of your choice if you really are a believer.
It feels like this team will be better a year from now, when they’ve had a chance to live through the hype of their first year with Bryce Harper and settle in. For now, even at odds of +800 to win it all, I think that they’ll fall short.