CLEARWATER, Fla. — For five seasons, Maikel Franco played in baseball’s wilderness. He reported to spring training in February and went home after the regular-season finale at the end of September. In between, he met few members of the national media and played in even fewer nationally televised games. But he did experience losing. A lot of losing.
Those days are over.
As Franco sat in front of his locker here Friday morning, the dawn of a new era in Phillies history, the clubhouse filled with cameras and microphones. There were questions about the $330 million superstar right fielder who arrived late in the day and will be introduced in a news conference Saturday. There was talk of expectations and playoffs, words that had been all but erased from the franchise’s collective vocabulary since 2011.
Such is the power of Bryce Harper.
Harper isn’t the best player in baseball, but he might be the sport’s biggest star. On Friday, as Harper was about to land in Clearwater to finalize his record-setting contract, manager Gabe Kapler called him “the most famous baseball player in the sport.” And now that the Phillies have him, they will be a popular pick of the prognosticators to win the National League East and perhaps even the pennant.
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That’s the new reality for Franco, center fielder Odubel Herrera, second baseman Cesar Hernandez, and other players who managed to survive a rebuild that began in 2015 and included back-to-back-to-back 90-loss seasons from 2015 through 2017.
“It feels great,” Franco said. “We stayed together. We stayed like a family. With all the new guys we have right now — [J.T.] Realmuto, [Jean] Segura, [Andrew] McCutchen, Harper now — it’s a good feeling, man. This year’s going to be really exciting, really fun to watch. It’s going to be huge for us.”
But it’s also going to present a level of pressure that the longest-tenured Phillies — Kapler, too, in his second year as a manager — haven’t experienced.
With or without Harper, the Phillies were angling to contend for a division title this year. They had a solid offseason, trading for Segura and Realmuto and signing McCutchen and reliever David Robertson. They expected to be better than last year, when they spent 39 days in first place but finished with only 80 wins after a late-season meltdown.
Yet the stakes got even higher last Friday night, when owner John Middleton and his wife, Leigh, touched down in Las Vegas on their private jet — a white Bombardier Challenger with a Phillies ‘P’ on the tail — to make their best sales pitch to Harper and his wife, Kayla, over dinner. Middleton delivered on his vow to spend big money this winter, pouring nearly half a billion dollars into the roster.
Now, the players must hold up their end.
“There's definitely pressure, but we don't worry about that,” Herrera said through a team translator. “Part of being a competitor is to be on a good team, try to win games. I think if everyone does what he's supposed to do, that little thing that everyone's supposed to do, we're going to be good.”
Winning isn’t novel to everyone in the Phillies’ clubhouse. Robertson has a World Series ring with the 2009 New York Yankees. McCutchen played in the postseason with the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Yankees last season. Harper went to the playoffs, though he didn’t win a series, with the Washington Nationals. And right-hander Jake Arrieta helped the Chicago Cubs end their championship drought in 2016.
“Now, really, it’s health,” Arrieta said. “If we stay healthy, we’re going to perform. There’s just no way around it.”
Phillies fans won’t expect anything less after years of expecting almost nothing.
Franco and Herrera, upper-half-of-the-lineup staples through the leanest of years, figure to bat in the Nos. 7 and 8 spots in a reloaded offense. They are now complementary pieces, not focal points, and the Phillies hope it will enable them to come closer to fulfilling their potential.
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But there will be consequences if they don’t play well. Middleton’s commitment assures that. When spring training began, Kapler challenged Franco by declaring a competition at third base with utilityman Scott Kingery. Kapler continues to claim that at-bats are available in center field, too, even though Herrera is the incumbent.
“No question, man, when you’re around a lot of good hitters, guys that we know are good hitters, it gets your mind more relaxed and everything,” Franco said. “Having [Harper] and trying to learn and trying to get a lot of information about hitting, it's going to be a good thing for us and for me, too. I just want to be part of that, be around him.”
It’s all part of the Bryce Harper Experience. It will begin in earnest Saturday at Spectrum Field and will change everything that these Phillies have known.
“I honestly think it's going to be a beautiful experience for all of us,” Herrera said. “When you're at the bottom, it’s difficult. You've got some rough patches there. But when you're good and you play well, you enjoy it. It's one of those things that you play for. That’s what you work for, that's what you hope for.”
And that’s the Phillies’ new reality.