Phillies have sights set on Bryce Harper-led free-agent class

Mets Nationals Spring Baseball
Bryce Harper’s contract with the Nationals will expire after this season. He is expected to headline the 2019 free agent class, and the Phillies will have plenty of money to spend by then.

CLEARWATER, Fla. — John Middleton circled Jake Arrieta’s name when he looked ahead “a while ago” at a list of players who could reach free agency after last season. The Phillies owner believed Arrieta was the best player available this offseason and he told Matt Klentak two years ago that the pitcher was a player the team should sign.

Middleton yearned after Arrieta and it was his private plane that delivered the pitcher Monday night to Phillies spring training. And now Middleton has his sights set on next winter when some of baseball’s biggest stars like Bryce Harper and Manny Machado hit the market.

So whose names are already circled?

“That’s a conversation for another day,” Middleton said. “But trust me, they are circled and they have been discussed for quite a while internally.”

Middleton greenlighted Klentak to spend $169 million this winter on four free agents. The Phillies only have three players — Arrieta, Carlos Santana, and Odubel Herrera — under contract after next season. They have a roster composed heavily of players who have yet to even reach arbitration, leaving the Phillies enormous payroll flexibility. Nothing the Phillies spent this offseason will limit them next winter. Middleton said he thinks next year’s free agents “would notice a lot” at what the Phillies did this offseason. And the team hopes those four investments make them an even more attractive landing spot for the likes of Harper and Machado.

“I think when you have players like Jake on the team, you’ve now crossed the bridge,” said Arrieta’s agent, Scott Boras, who also represented Harper. “The Phillies are certainly something that brings to light, probably the flow of competitiveness in the real. I don’t think there’s a wait here. I think there’s talent that needs experience, refinement, attitude, confidence, and certainly when you bring in players like Jake, you’ve put the cream in the coffee and it’s ready to drink.”

Arrieta expects to be ready

Arrieta expects to be ready for the start of the season despite missing the first four weeks of spring training. He has been throwing 50-to-65-pitch bullpen sessions every two or three days and his arm strength is built up, he said.

“My body is in tremendous shape,” Arrieta said. “I feel like we’ll probably sit down and game plan and decide how quickly I get into a game and how many pitches I’m able to throw right away and develop a program to get me ready for the opening week of the season because that’s exactly what I intend to do. … I haven’t been in a game yet, but I’m a quick learner and I like my chances.”

And he expects to win

Arrieta was part of a rebuilding process in Chicago that reached the playoffs a year or two before most expected the Cubs to be competitive. He said he has a similar feeling about the Phillies.

“A rebuild doesn’t mean you can’t win now,” Arrieta said. “That’s probably the same mind-set that the players in this organization have now, and I’m no different. I intend to come in here and win right away. Even though we are technically in a rebuild, I think all the players would agree with me that we intend to win, rebuild or not.”

Extra bases

Jesmuel Valentin hit a walk-off homer to defeat Tampa Bay, 6-3. … Maikel Franco homered on a 3-0 pitch in the fourth inning. … Tom Eshelman struck out four batters and walked one in 4 2/3 scoreless innings. … The Phillies travel to Disney World Wednesday to play the Braves.