Gabe Kapler and Bryce Harper

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Gabe Kapler raves about Bryce Harper

Tim Kelly
December 10, 2018 - 3:36 pm

In July of 2010, then New York Knicks head coach Mike D’Antoni laughed with reporters after his team had a free-agent meeting with a 25-year-old LeBron James, admitting that it was nice to finally be able to publicly acknowledge the team’s long-standing interest in James, which had been one of the worst-kept secrets in sports.

Related: Agent on Harper: 'Philly bidding against Philly'​

While the Philadelphia Phillies hope to have more success in landing one of two superstar talents available this offseason than the Knicks did in 2010, a similar dynamic is at play. Whether the Phillies prefer Bryce Harper or Manny Machado, they’re very interested in both 26-year-olds, who have a combined 10 All-Star Game appearances on their respective resumes. And even if neither are especially likely to sign at this week’s MLB Winter Meetings in Las Vegas, don’t underestimate how important this week could be in terms of influencing the Phillies chances of landing either Harper or Machado, both of whom have been connected to the Phillies for the better part of a half decade.

Speculation about the Phillies signing either predates manager Gabe Kapler, who is entering his second season at the helm. But prior to coming to Philadelphia, Kapler was the director of player development for the Los Angeles Dodgers, another major-market organization that’s long been expected to bid for Harper’s services this offseason. The anticipation of this free-agent class isn’t lost on Kapler.

Apparently also not lost on Kapler: what it is that Harper adds to a lineup.

“Bryce Harper does a number of things well,” Kapler told the collective media, via Matt Breen of The Philadelphia Inquirer. “But one of the things I found most fascinating about him last year was even through most of the times of his struggles, he still worked an incredible at-bat. So it wasn’t like rolling over to the second baseman on the first pitch when he was struggling, although that happened from time to time. But when he struggled he still put together a quality at-bat. He still worked the pitcher. He still made the opposition uncomfortable. And sometimes he’d end that at-bat with a walk, which I think there’s a lot of value in that.”

Harper, the 2015 National League MVP, did hit .214 in the first-half of the 2018 season, certainly an underwhelming mark in a contract year, or any year. Still, he started for the National League All-Star team. Some of that can be chalked up the game being played at Nationals Park and Harper being perhaps the most recognizable face in baseball, which helps you when fans vote. But he still hit 23 home runs and 54 RBIs prior to the All-Star Break. He also walked 78 times in the first-half of the 2018 season, second only to Mike Trout.

Walks became a rather polarizing topic in Philadelphia baseball circles in 2018, but when you are struggling offensively, and/or teams are pitching around you, it’s certainly better to walk than to give at-bats away. Despite hitting .214 before the All-Star Break, Harper’s on-base percentage sat at .365 at the Midsummer Classic thanks to his tendency to draw walks. And after trading Carlos Santana - a trade that acquired Jean Segura, making Cesar Hernandez’s future in Philadelphia murky - the Phillies could stand to add someone to their lineup that’s consistently among the league’s leaders in walks.

Of course, the Phillies wouldn’t consider giving Harper a deal that will likely be in excess of $300 million because he draws a lot of walks. The player that slashed .313/.434/.538 with 11 home runs, 46 RBIs and a .972 OPS is the one that the Phillies (and most teams in the league) covet.

“When he’s going good, he’s one of the more difficult players to get out in the game,” Kapler told Breen of Harper. “And I love the way he plays - I think there’s so much to like about what Bryce Harper brings to the table.”

The baseball world got a glimpse of that player in 2015, when Harper slashed .330/.460/.649 with 42 home runs, 99 RBIs and a staggering 9.3 fWAR. Hall of Fame right fielders Frank Robinson, Hank Aaron, Tony Gwynn and Roberto Clemente never had a season with an fWAR as high as 9.3. Harper did it when he was 22.

Harper may very well have won a second National League MVP in 2017 if not for a freak incident where he tripped over a wet first base bag at Nationals Park, which limited him to just 111 games. To that point, he was slashing .319/.413/.595 with 29 home runs, 87 RBIs, a 1.008 OPS and a 4.8 fWAR. Those numbers would make for an excellent full season for most. Harper produced them despite missing over 50 games.

Pointing to both of those seasons isn’t meant to overlook that Haper has yet to put together a stretch of five or six consecutive MVP caliber seasons. He hit .243 in 2016, though that season does appear to have come while Harper dealt with a nagging shoulder injury. 2018 was a mixed bag, though his highs were very high, and his lows could only be seen as low by the standard that he has set.

The question any potential suitor of Harper will have to ask themselves is whether Harper is capable of putting together a five-to-seven year stretch starting in 2019 that will ultimately propel him to the Hall of Fame. Kapler sure seems to think he is.