Bryce Harper chose the Philadelphia Phillies over the SF Giants when he was a free agent in 2018. Would he make the same decision now?
On Thursday, just a couple of hours after the Rule 5 Draft, Jayson Stark of The Athletic reported that the Philadelphia Phillies were on the verge of hiring Dave Dombrowski as their president of baseball operations. Dombrowski has previously served as the top baseball decision-maker for the Miami Marlins, Detroit Tigers, and Boston Red Sox, reaching the World Series with each team, winning championships in Miami and Boston.
While a grizzled baseball veteran, some questioned Dombrowski’s fit with the Phillies. FanGraphs’ Jon Tayler tweeted, “Dave Dombrowski works best as a GM with lots of cash to spend and prospects to trade, and the Phillies don’t seem to have either of those things.” Historically, the Phillies have been one of the most aggressive spenders in Major League Baseball, but a report last week by ESPN’s Buster Olney suggested team ownership has placed management in a financial bind.
According to Olney’s report, the consequences of such restrictions have led the team to consider trade offers for ace Zack Wheeler. Olney said the team was not “yet” considering trading outfielder Bryce Harper, but his framing suggested the Phillies star, who signed a 13-year, $330 million contract with the team two offseason ago, could become a trade chip down the line.
Of course, the SF Giants were one of the finalists to sign Harper when he was a free agent prior to the 2019 season. At that time, Farhan Zaidi was in his first offseason as the Giants president of baseball operations and made a late-winter push to add the six-time All-Star. According to Henry Schulman of The San Francisco Chronicle, the Giants offered Harper a 12-year, $310 million deal.
On the surface, Harper’s decision to head to The City of Brotherly Love over the Bay Area might have seemed surprising. Born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada, Harper grew up a fan of MLB’s home-run king Barry Bonds. Harper has long had an affinity for the city of San Francisco and would have been the franchise’s most impactful acquisition since Bonds was signed away from the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1992.
However, the Giants appeared to be heading on a downward trajectory, while the Phillies outlook was looking up. Philadelphia was a young team with just three significant contributors over the age of 28 in 2018. They finished the season with a mediocre 80-82 record, but that signified a 24 victory improvement over 2017. Paired with a consensus top-five farm system in baseball, they seemed on the cusp of perennial contention.
The Giants, on the other hand, hired Zaidi that offseason to reinvigorate a franchise struggling to remain relevant. The team finished the season with a 73-89 record and had few young pieces to build around. Joe Panik and Alen Hanson were the only hitters on the team to receive at least 230 plate appearances under 30. To make matters worse, the organization appeared to have one of the worst farm systems in baseball, even after selecting Joey Bart with the second overall pick in the 2018 MLB Draft.
Zaidi had a strong resume and some familiar faces from the Giants championship teams from 2010-2014, but Buster Posey, Brandon Belt, Joe Panik, Brandon Crawford, Pablo Sandoval, and Madison Bumgarner were all far removed from their peak performances. Most around baseball saw no path for the Giants to be competitive and build a sustainable contender. In interviews since signing, Harper has said concerns about the franchise’s future played a pivotal role in declining the Giants’ offer and joining the Phillies.
Instead, the Phillies have won just three more games over the past two seasons than the Giants. Yet even as the big-league results have been similar, both organizations have seen their stock go in opposite directions than expected.
Many of the Phillies’ younger players failed to maintain their early career success, and most of their top prospects have stalled against better competition. The Giants have found legitimate big-league contributors, like Mike Yastrzemski, Alex Dickerson, Kevin Gausman, and Donovan Solano through low-risk moves alongside resurgent 2020 campaigns from veterans like Belt and Crawford. Moreover, Zaidi has strengthened the farm system’s depth through trades as several prospects already in the system have seen their stock rise.
Less than two years after Harper’s decision, it is the Phillies that appear on the verge of an extended rebuild. Dombrowski is known for an aggressive approach to roster building, but unless the Phillies are willing to spend more to sure up their pitching staff, it’s hard to envision them progressing much further. With a bottom-five farm system in baseball, they are limited in the talent they could acquire via trade as well.
Harper, to his credit, has been fantastic since signing with the Phillies. He’s produced a .903 OPS with 37 home runs, 112 walks, and 18 stolen bases per 162 games over his two seasons in Philadelphia. Only recently turning 28-years old, he remains one of the few bright spots for the franchise. Ironically, he has ended up in the exact position he thought he was avoiding by choosing the Phillies in the first place.
There are 330 million reasons Bryce Harper has little to regret. However, as the Philadelphia Phillies contemplate unloading big-league players to clear payroll and the SF Giants appear poised to be one of the most aggressive teams in free agency this offseason, he might have reason to wish he could go back to the 2018-19 offseason and sign with the Orange and Black.