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Surrounded by Bryce Harper buzz, Phillies just try to block out the noise

The Phillies did plenty this offseason to improve, but will it be enough if they don’t sign Harper?
Phillies outfielder Andrew McCutchen during a spring training workout at the Carpenter Complex in Clearwater. (EDUARD A. ENCINA  | Times)
Phillies outfielder Andrew McCutchen during a spring training workout at the Carpenter Complex in Clearwater. (EDUARD A. ENCINA | Times)
Published Feb. 20, 2019
Updated Feb. 20, 2019

CLEARWATER — Inside the Phillies’ spring training clubhouse, players aren’t waiting on Bryce Harper to save their season.

Yes, the Phillies went big-game hunting this offseason, targeting both Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, and at various points they seemed destined to land one or the other.

Now that Machado has found a home in San Diego, all eyes turn to Clearwater, where the Phillies are still considered the favorites to land Harper. But to assume the Phillies are hinging their 2019 success on landing him would be a leap.

“You don’t hear much about it,” said reliever David Robertson. “We were sitting at the food table here (on Tuesday watching TV) and I forget who it was, but they were like, ‘Oh, Manny’s going to the Padres.’ That’s it.

“You can’t sit there and worry too much about guys on the outside right now,” Robertson added. “Obviously, we want them all to get jobs and we want them to get paid as much as they possibly can and get the contract and the years and everything they want. But for us here, we have to focus on what we’re doing because we’re already here. If guys like that join us, we welcome then with open arms.”

So much focus has been placed on the Phillies’ pursuit of Machado and Harper that it’s easy to overlook what else the Phillies have done in the offseason to improve their case in the National League East.

Last year’s club was atop the division from early July to mid-August before a September fall out of postseason contention. The Phillies’ early success surprised many who believed they were still a few years away from contending. Then they suffered a late-season tailspin, going 8-20 in September to finish two games under .500.

They focused on adding veterans who could add leadership, and did just that by signing former NL MVP Andrew McCutchen and a former all-star closer in David Robertson and trading for a pair of all-stars, shortstop Jean Segura from Seattle and catcher J.T. Realmuto from Miami.

Phillies first baseman Rhys Hoskins warms up in the outfield before a spring training workout at the Carpenter Complex in Clearwater. (EDUARDO A. ENCINA | Times)
Phillies first baseman Rhys Hoskins warms up in the outfield before a spring training workout at the Carpenter Complex in Clearwater. (EDUARDO A. ENCINA | Times)

That foursome adds 12.7 wins above replacement, according to FanGraphs’ WAR formula from last season. The Phillies finished 10 games back of the division champion Braves. Add that to a strong young core that includes right-hander Aaron Nola, who placed third in Cy Young Award voting, and first baseman Rhys Hoskins, and there’s a lot to be optimistic about even without Harper.

“I feel strongly that my focus is on our camp right now,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “That’s not to say we’re not aware of the things going on around us, but we’re certainly focused on our camp.”

The Phillies were tied for last in the majors in hitting with a .234 team batting average, and their defense was woeful. Philadelphia’s minus-146 defensive runs saved ranked last and were 46 runs worse than the majors’ second-worst defensive team.

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The addition of Segura gives the Phillies a .300 hitter to slot into the No. 2 spot in the batting order. McCutchen can hit anywhere from one to six in the Phillies order and brings his .378 career on-base percentage. Then there’s Realmuto, who led all catchers with a 4.8 WAR last season.

“Our lineup got deeper, it got stronger. I think we’re better equipped to score runs and we certainly have a lot to improve on from last year,” Kapler said.

Segura, a plus defensive shortstop, and McCutchen, an above-average defender in right, will help raise the Phillies’ poor defensive numbers. Their addition will also allow Hoskins to shift from leftfield, where he logged minus-24 defensive runs saved, back to his natural position at first base.

For most fan bases, that would be enough. But their active offseason could also be a curse if they don’t land Harper. The Phillies dealt several top prospects to get Realmuto and Segura, so the message is that they are trying to win now.

And if there's one thing we know about Philadelphia sports fans, they don't like doing anything halfway. It's all or nothing. So given the message they've received from a front office that made moves with an emphasis on now, there should be no explaining why they wouldn't make every attempt to sign Harper.

The buildup is too big. After coveting both stars, and now watching Machado get his money elsewhere, it seems like not nabbing Harper would be the ultimate disappointment for Phillies fans.

Inside the Phillies’ clubhouse, they know that, but they can’t worry about it.

“We added so many (veterans) and they’re good people,” said Phillies reliever Pat Neshek. “I think the fan base is expecting to add one of those big guys, but I think in here, if it happens it would be awesome, but if it doesn’t I think we’re really excited about the guys we have.”

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