After flopping in Bryce Harper's first year, what's next for the Phillies?

USA Today Sports 1 month ago

WASHINGTON — For $455 million, the Philadelphia Phillies bought themselves nothing more than one more day, one more game of playoff contention.

Now, manager Gabe Kapler and the rest of the organization can only wait to see if such middling progress after the mass expenditure will bring significant consequences.

The Phillies were eliminated from postseason contention Tuesday afternoon when they were beaten, 4-1, by the Washington Nationals in the first game of a day-night doubleheader.

The Nationals are on the verge of a playoff berth – their magic number for a wild card slot was two entering Tuesday’s nightcap – and the Phillies are playing out the string, even though Philly lured Bryce Harper away from Washington with a $330 million contract as part of the “stupid" money principal owner John Middleton laid out last winter.

Now, they’re just a 79-77 team out of it on Sept. 24.

Kind of like last year, when they were eliminated on Sept. 23, 2018, a 2-1 loss to Atlanta dropping them to 78-77. They finished 80-82, a mark that inspired their winter revamp.

But the 13-year commitment to Harper, the $51 million for Andrew McCutchen, the prospect capital and the $6 million burned on All-Star catcher J.T. Realmuto, the $23 million for reliever David Robertson – none of it amounted to an improved squad.

Harper? He was fine. As Scott Kingery’s fly ball settled in right fielder Adam Eaton’s glove – Harper’s old position – he turned his cap backward and exited the visitor’s dugout at Nationals Park, neither a savior nor a culprit in Philly.

His .872 OPS is respectable, if off from the .900 mark he posted in Washington. He’s hit 34 homers and will approach his career-high mark of 38.

Injuries to his Stupid Money classmates were, indeed, brutal. McCutchen posted a .378 on-base percentage in 59 games before a June 3 ACL tear knocked him into 2020. Robertson pitched in just seven games before a season-ending elbow injury. Veteran starter Jake Arrieta tried pitching through bone chips in his elbow before making his final start Aug. 11, and undergoing season-ending surgery.

Yet in this second year under Kapler, there seemed again like something was missing beyond the injuries. In their final meaningful baseball of 2019, the final 18 Phillies failed to reach base.

Kapler is signed through next season. He hopes he is around to fulfill those terms.

“I love this organization, I love this team specifically, I love working for this front office, for this ownership group,” he said after the loss. “And look, I’m going to manage this club for as long as I can, because I think I give us a great chance to win and because I care deeply about the success of this franchise.”

Certainly, you can’t win without the pitching. The Phillies rank 11th in the NL in ERA and their standing in the NL East – fourth – reflects the performance of their teams’ arms. If Middleton is inclined to drop Stupid Money: The Remix this winter, it will certainly be a pitching-heavy track.

Yet Kapler often opens himself up to bullpen management criticism, and ultimately, holdovers on the pitching staff did not take steps forward from year to year.

And some players – such as young slugger Rhys Hoskins – objectively regressed.

“I think it’s a lot of things, honestly,” said Hoskins, whose OPS dropped from .850 to  .835 in this year of the home run, and at times struggled at first base. “Obviously, we haven’t been as consistent as you would hope. We pitched well throughout the year and hit well throughout the year, but they never seemed to sync up for a long time.

“Obviously, we’ll try to win all six games (left in 2019). And create some momentum going into the offseason.”

Hoskins and Kapler insisted the similar record belied an improved vibe in this second season under the new-age manager. “They’re pushing really hard,” Kapler said, “and I feel like it feels different for that reason.”

Hard enough to avoid wholesale changes, in personnel or management?

That remains to be seen. What’s undeniable is that for the second consecutive year, the Phillies are staring up at the Nationals and Braves, with the Mets thrown in for good measure this time.

For now, Kapler will worry about the internal struggle.

“We’re competing against ourselves to be the best organization, the best team we can possibly be,” he says. “I’ve seen some improvements from last year to this year. There’s still a lot of work to be done.”

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