PHILADELPHIA – As Bryce Harper slips out of the Citizens Bank Park clubhouse one recent evening, it’s hard to miss the script logo cap worn backward on his head: Philadelphia 76ers.
A day later, Manny Machado arrives for a road game clad in a brown and yellow T-shirt that sums up who and where he is these days: ManDiego.
The two richest free agents in baseball history aren’t subtle in their personal re-branding, embracing their new homes in words and action after they were guaranteed more than a half-billion dollars in future salary this past winter.
Less obvious – and quantifiable – is the impact both men have had on their teams one month into their landmark commitments.
You won’t yet find Harper – who received a record 13-year, $330 million deal from the Phillies – or Machado (10 years, $300 million from the Padres) in the National League’s top 10 of any major offensive categories. The MVP chatter, gaudy home run totals and ever-elusive buzz are reserved for Cody Bellinger and Christian Yelich and even two of their teammates, Phillies slugger Rhys Hoskins and transcendent Padres rookie shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr.
Yet the ripple effects of their acquisitions are everywhere, from the stat sheet to the clubhouse and ultimately, the standings.
The Phillies have clawed to the top of an unforgiving NL East, as their collection of new sluggers engender hope that, unlike last season, their strong start will be sustainable. The Padres just reeled off their first six-game winning streak in six years, a considerable confidence boost as they prepare for their first meeting of the season against their ultimate adversary – the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The Padres and Phillies both won 16 of their first 28 games, 93-win paces that would likely produce playoff berths – and fulfill the high hopes created by Harper and Machado’s arrivals.
“When ownership made that choice, it raised our collective expectation level,” says Padres manager Andy Green. “That is very difficult to quantify – when a team looks at each other in that clubhouse and goes, ‘We’ve got enough to go win baseball games now,’ and feel strongly about that, instead of trying to manufacture that feeling.”
It shows. While first baseman Eric Hosmer’s 2018 acquisition heralded a pivot to contention, it was not until Machado’s February signing and the club’s decision to start Tatis in the majors on Opening Day – bucking a trend of service-time suppression that has banished the likes of Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Ronald Acuna Jr. to the minors – that the Padres truly felt it was on.
Machado’s bat has not yet focused the baseball world’s eyes on Petco Park: He’s batting .242 with four home runs and a .714 OPS that’s 106 points off his career mark. Yet the third baseman already leads major league infielders with six Defensive Runs Saved, and with Tatis forms perhaps the best left side in baseball.
“I’ve seen him make some incredibly hard plays look really easy,” says Padres reliever Craig Stammen. “It’s fun to joke around with him because he’s like, ‘That’s what I do.’”
And while Machado – who hit 33 to 37 home runs every season from 2015-2018 – hasn’t yet started pounding the ball, there is a certain inevitability the 26-year-old will heat up before the weather does.
In the meantime, he gives the Padres a certain look that they lacked.
“As a pitcher, you look up at the scoreboard and it’s April and he’s got .245, .250 or whatever it is, but it doesn’t matter: He still has that dynamic in the batter’s box, in the lineup,” says Padres closer Kirby Yates, who has converted all 13 save opportunities. “You don’t think, ‘He’s not doing it right now; I’m just going to throw him heaters.’
“He puts protection on people in the lineup and helps everyone out, regardless of whether he’s hitting or not. He’s bound to get hot, and when he does he can carry an offense for a while.”
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Says Green: “We don’t think he’s hit his offensive stride yet. He hasn’t been bad by any stretch; he’s been solid. Still, his mere presence in the batting order changes things for everybody else.”
The Phillies can relate.
While Harper started out red-hot – reaching base eight consecutive plate appearances at one point – he has just four hits in his last 29 at-bats, with two home runs.
But Harper has led a Phillies domination of another important category: Walks. He’s drawn an NL-high 23, second only to Mike Trout in the big leagues. Andrew McCutchen, signed to a three-year, $51 million deal three months before Harper’s arrival, ranks second with 22 walks.
Hoskins, who typically bats cleanup behind Harper, is tied for fifth with 20 walks and has slammed eight home runs.
“If I’m walking,” Harper tells USA TODAY Sports, “I’m at my best. Just try to get on base for the guys behind me the best I can. Try to understand what works best for me, my approach and what I do.”
It’s not sexy, but it’s increasingly a part of Harper’s profile – along with the game’s general trend lines. Harper’s average was languishing in the .215 range in the first half of his final year in Washington before he rallied to a more respectable .249 mark by year’s end – and also drew an NL-best 130 walks.
Harper is currently batting .250, but pairs a .400 on-base percentage with six homers and a 136 OPS-plus.
“I feel strongly,” says Phillies manager Gabe Kapler, “that Bryce is just a guy who goes through periods of time where he doesn’t get a lot of hits. Still reaching base via the walk, still producing power.”
The overall prognosis was sunnier early on: The Phillies scored at least eight runs in eight of their first 20 games and Harper was batting .289. Then, the Phillies lost two shortstops (Jean Segura and Scott Kingery) and two center fielders (Odubel Herrera and Roman Quinn) to injury in an eight-day span.
Yet these Phillies may prove too deep to slump.
The additions of Harper, McCutchen and catcher J.T. Realmuto have pushed holdovers like Herrera and third baseman Maikel Franco deeper in the lineup – and that’s been punishing for pitchers.
Franco has batted eighth in 20 of his 26 starts and has hit seven home runs and produced an .876 OPS; his OPS-plus is 131.
Those numbers a year ago were .780 and 105 and while Kapler prefers giving Franco the credit for a second consecutive winter of hard work, the third baseman has noticed life is good with runners on in front of him.
“When you know that, you kind of slow down, and adjustment to what you have to do,” says Franco, who has an excellent chance to surpass his career high of 25 homers, set in 2016. “You know you’re going to be in a good situation – ‘OK, I know I have a guy on second base. I have to get a better pitch.’”
Harper landed in Philly after a long winter resulted in just a handful of teams willing to meet his market value.
Now, his No. 3 jersey can’t be missed at Citizens Bank Park – nor can the elaborate home-run celebrations after he or a teammate leave the yard.
“That’s one thing I think we do every single day – win or lose, we’re going to smile, we’re going to have fun, we’re going to laugh,” he says. “We have a great fan base that’s behind us each and every day, a great manager, great staff, so being able to pull on that same rope every day makes us that much more of a better team.
“I love it. It’s been great. A lot of people that care. A lot of emotion. A lot of understanding. It’s fun to be around such a great group of guys that really go about it the right way. We have a great mix of veteran players and young players still learning how to do it.”
Harper was upbraided by pitcher Jake Arrieta when he was ejected from a recent game, noting the club particularly needed him in their current, injured state. Otherwise, his demeanor has played well in Philly.
“He’s going to bring it 100% every day he shows up,” says McCutchen, the 32-year-old former MVP. “That’s what I expected from him. He works hard at his craft.”
Machado, a Miami native, admits he’s still acclimating to West Coast vibes. Yet he’s also in the fortunate position of not having to do too much. Hosmer, signed to an eight-year, $144 million deal in February 2018, remains the dominant clubhouse presence.
The outstanding performances of rookies Tatis and pitcher Chris Paddack (a 1.67 ERA in five starts) have commanded much of the attention, allowing Machado to assimilate.
“I couldn’t ask for a better group,” he says. “Overall, it’s been a great experience. It’s been a fun time.
“Every day we step on the field, it’s a beautiful day.”
The Padres haven’t made the playoffs since 2006 and play in an NL West won by the Dodgers the past six seasons. Machado reached the World Series after a July trade to the Dodgers and doesn’t believe standing up to them must wait until another wave of pitching prospects land in San Diego.
The two teams meet for the first time Friday at Petco Park.
“We’ll challenge them right now,” says Machado. “Once you step on that field, it’s game on. It’s 25 against 25 and the better team’s going to win. Whether we have a better team or they do, nobody knows. But know we’re going leave it all on the field.”
For $300 million – and the willingness to sacrifice a year of control over Tatis – the Padres have at least bought themselves a fair fight.
“You look at it this year and feel like, OK, we have a chance,” says Yates. “But we still have to go in there and win. We haven’t done it yet.”
Harper and Machado could feel the same – although their early influence is probably greater than they realize.
Lacques also reported from Washington