A few weeks ago, Rhys Hoskins stood near his locker inside the Phillies clubhouse and considered a hypothetical: If he had 20 seconds before his iPhone battery ran out and Bryce Harper or Manny Machado called, how would he sell either of them on playing here?
“I’ve got 20 seconds, huh?” Hoskins said, chuckling.
OK, take 30 seconds. Or 30 minutes. Heck, take three more weeks. Clearly, nobody is in a rush.
It’s a relevant question, though, because it’s February, pitchers and catchers will report to spring training next week, and Harper and Machado are still free agents. The Phillies, unlike most teams, have signaled through their words and actions that they’re interested in both players and willing to spend big money to get them. And the longer the 26-year-old studs hold out, the louder the whispers will get that maybe neither really wants to play here.
Such a suggestion would’ve been ludicrous 10 years ago. The Phillies had just won the World Series and were in the midst of a run of five consecutive division titles. They played every home game before a packed house. There weren’t many more desirable destinations for free agents. In the 2010-11 offseason, Cliff Lee spurned a better offer from the New York Yankees, of all teams, to re-sign with the Phillies. Imagine that.
Most current free agents can’t. Harper and Machado were recently drafted by the Washington Nationals and Baltimore Orioles, respectively, when Lee opted for South Philly over the South Bronx. They made their big-league debuts in 2012, one year after the Phillies’ most recent playoff appearance. Since then, the Phillies have lost 627 games, more than only the Miami Marlins and Chicago White Sox.
Harper, in particular, has come here for three series every season for his entire career and teed off on the weakling home team. Tales of the Phillies’ dominance of the National League must seem apocryphal to him. Perhaps he finds it equally difficult to imagine them dominating again.
Club officials paint an unsurprisingly optimistic picture. They hosted Machado for a day in December and traveled to Las Vegas last month to visit Harper in his hometown. In each case, they characterized the meeting as positive, with team officials expressing confidence that they will land one of the megastars.
“I am not worried at all about players’ desire to come to Philadelphia,” general manager Matt Klentak said early in the offseason. “Agents, players, fans, everybody knows what our city is like in good times. If the conditions are right, the terms are right, the dollars are right, I’m pretty confident we’ll be able to attract free agents.”
Indeed, nothing talks quite as loudly as money, and owner John Middleton has stated a willingness to spend big. If the Phillies wind up making the best offer, Harper or Machado will most likely sign here. And if either player is that concerned about a long-term deal in Philadelphia, it could be tempered by an opt-out clause after two or three years. Such provisions are common now in contract negotiations.
Players talk, too, though. If the vibe about a team isn’t good, it’s bound to get around. But several agents back Klentak’s claim that the Phillies are held in high regard.
One agent who engaged the Phillies this winter described Klentak as “tireless, engaged and bright” and said he expects an impending “return to prominence.” Another agent who had a client who signed here within the last few years said most free agents recognize the Phillies are trending upward.
“Everyone knows that Philadelphia appears to be close,” the second agent said, “so I anticipate more free agents will consider Philly favorably.”
Then there’s David Robertson, the veteran reliever who represented himself in free agency and signed a two-year, $23 million contract with the Phillies last month even though they don’t plan to use him strictly as a closer.
“They’ve got that hunger to get back in the postseason,” Robertson said. “They held a lead last year in the [NL] East for a long time, and I think they’re going in the right direction. I don’t see any reason why we can’t be in the postseason soon.”
But there are other factors, too. Although Hoskins described his conversations with free agents as “nothing too extensive,” he said players often ask about living in Philadelphia and the atmosphere in the clubhouse. And usually, Hoskins said, they want to know about the Gabe Kapler experience.
With his progressive, often unorthodox style, the Phillies manager provokes curiosity among opposing players. Hoskins concedes that Kapler is “unique,” but also routinely praises his open communication with players and willingness to change his mind when something doesn’t go according to plan. Harper reportedly hit it off with Kapler in Las Vegas, bonding over their fitness routines, love of food, and Harper persuading an umpire to change a foul ball call on a check swing against the Phillies last year.
So, will free agents begin clamoring to play for the Phillies again?
“You would hope,” Hoskins said. “There’s a plethora of young talent here, and I think that’s exciting for guys when you see that.”
As for that 20-second recruiting pitch, Hoskins could work for the chamber of commerce.
“Great fans, great ballpark to hit in,” he said. “And I’ve said this about Philadelphia as a city: You walk around this city and it’s not overwhelming. It’s not a big city. It’s not New York. You have random conversations with people, and it doesn’t feel like you’re talking to a stranger. It feels a little more like family here, and that’s pretty special.”