CLEARWATER, Fla. — The Phillies are standing at the front door of being all in, and they have the 11-letter password: B-R-Y-C-E-H-A-R-P-E-R.
Sign the 26-year-old, free-agent outfielder, and listen for the phones in the ticket office to start ringing. That is exactly how managing partner John Middleton, team president Andy MacPhail, and general manager Matt Klentak should be viewing their situation after Manny Machado came off the board by agreeing to a $300-million deal with the San Diego Padres on Tuesday. In fact, it should have been how they were looking at their situation even before Machado signed.
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Klentak often likes to talk about acquiring players who move the needle, meaning he always wants the Phillies’ additions to represent an upgrade and preferably a significant one. That rule should also apply to the business side. Since coming into the league as a 19-year-old rookie in 2012, Harper has been one of those players people come to see. And, it has been abundantly clear for some time that Harper is the player Phillies fans most want to see in red pinstripes. The signing of Machado might have moved the attendance needle a little initially, and it would have moved it even more if the Phillies got off to a good start and played as a contending team from wire to wire.
We know how hot a spot Citizens Bank Park can be, because it was the most en vogue summer venue in the city at the start of this decade. Argue if you want that the team’s 257-game sellout streak was a bit manufactured, because there were large patches of empty blue seats on many nights, but the human gridlock on Ashburn Alley was very real and very valuable to the Phillies.
It’s conceivable that, with Harper, the Phillies could return to the days of drawing 3 million fans in a season, something they have not done since the 2013 season. If the Harper-led Phillies drew 3 million, it would represent an increase of 841,876 fans from a season ago. What does that mean in terms of dollars? According to a Forbes.com story that valued the Phillies at $1.7 billion, one fan is valued at $42. Multiply that number by 841,876, and returning to the 3-million fan plateau this season would be worth $35.4 million to the Phillies in 2019. Multiply $35.4 million by 10 seasons, and you have $354 million, which should just about cover the cost of signing Harper.
It’s more complicated than that, of course. The ultimate motivation for signing either Machado or Harper is to win, and, to steal Klentak’s analogy, both players are substantial needle-movers. Should the Phillies go from a losing team to a contending team, the team’s $1.7 billion value will also rise.
The point is that the Phillies can most definitely afford agent Scott Boras’ asking price for Harper. They could have afforded the $300 million Machado received, too, which makes their admitted reluctance to go that high a little baffling, if that was the player they really wanted.
None of this means they should back up Middleton’s private jet and start making it rain millions on Harper. It just means the cash is not a problem, and this is the time to spend it.
Sure, Colorado’s Nolan Arenado and Washington’s Anthony Rendon are scheduled to be free agents after the season, but it’s entirely possible they will sign extensions with their current teams before this season ends. There is also no guarantee that teams such as the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago Cubs, and Boston Red Sox will not go after those guys.
And, if Mike Trout does not re-sign with the Los Angeles Angels and becomes a free agent after the 2020 season, the smart money says that the Yankees, Dodgers, Cubs and Red Sox will join the bidding for the greatest player of this era.
That really has been the big break for the Phillies in this free-agent market. If you had told baseball experts at the start of last season that the Yankees, Red Sox, Cubs, and Dodgers would all be out on Harper and Machado, they would have looked at you cross-eyed. But, that is what has happened.
Only the San Francisco Giants are still involved among the power teams, but they are in the midst of a rebuilding phase that might make them reluctant to give Harper a long-term deal.
It really has been the perfect landscape for the Phillies to go all in, and they spent the offseason getting right to the brink. They’ve been applauded for the deals that brought them J.T. Realmuto and Jean Segura and the free-agent signings of Andrew McCutchen and David Robertson.