By Tyler Maher
With Bryce Harper finally playing in his first World Series, I thought it would be a good time to revisit how he ended up on the Philadelphia Phillies in the first place.
When Harper debuted with the Washington Nationals in 2012, he was possibly the most hyped prospect in baseball history. Dubbed “baseball’s chosen one” by Sports Illustrated at age 16, the next few years were essentially an exercise in waiting for him to arrive in the big leagues.
Thankfully, it didn’t take long. Washington grabbed him with the first overall draft pick in 2010, and less than two years later he was in the Majors. Still just 19, he immediately made his mark in The Show, having one of the greatest seasons ever by a teenager while helping the Nationals make the playoffs for the first time since arriving in D.C.
It took Harper a few years to put it all together, but when he did he produced one of the greatest offensive seasons in baseball history. Everything clicked for him in 2015, when he slashed .330/.460/.649 with 42 home runs and won the NL MVP award unanimously. At 22 years old, he had officially established himself as a bona fide superstar.
At that point in time, Harper seemed all but certain to become a Yankee. Not only was he scheduled to reach free agency at age 26, but he was also represented by Scott Boras. Surely he was going to command a massive contract that perhaps only New York would be able to afford. His left-handed power stroke was a perfect fit for Yankee Stadium and he played with the type of passion and energy that New Yorkers love. It also didn’t hurt that Harper was a Yankee fan growing up and idolized Mickey Mantle.
Harper’s destination appeared set: the only question was how much money would New York give him. $400 million? $500 million? The sky was the limit. The Yankees had a lot of money coming off the books and desperately needed a new star after their old ones retired. And with Mike Trout taking himself off the market by signing an extension with the Los Angeles Angels before the 2019 season, New York would naturally need to have the next best thing.
But then a couple of things happened that threw a major wrench into those plans. The first was that Aaron Judge unexpectedly emerged as the second coming of Babe Ruth in 2017. He played right field -- the same position as Harper -- and was a better fielder, too. The second was that New York’s next championship-caliber core (Judge included) arrived ahead of schedule that same year, pushing the Houston Astros to the limit in the ALCS.
Meanwhile, Harper had failed to replicate his monster 2015 with Washington, enduring one of the worst seasons of his career in 2016 followed by an injury-shortened campaign in 2017. His stock fell considerably during those years, especially as it became clear that he wasn’t on Trout’s level after all.
With Harper still one year away from free agency, the Yankees shifted course. They made a deal with old friend Derek Jeter and traded for Giancarlo Stanton from the Miami Marlins in December 2017. Stanton was coming off a 59-homer MVP campaign and was already locked into a more team-friendly (albeit still-exorbitant) deal than the one Harper was going to sign. By absorbing the bulk of Stanton’s mammoth $325 million contract, the Yankees effectively excused themselves from the Harper sweepstakes.
Harper had another somewhat disappointing season in 2018, batting .249 with a whopping 169 strikeouts though he did hit 34 homers and drive in 100 runs. He appeared to be becoming a “three true outcomes” type of hitter and his defense was declining, so there wasn’t much of a market for him. Teams waited as long as possible to sign him and Manny Machado in an effort to drive their prices down, and in the end Harper wound up in Philadelphia rather than New York while Machado went to San Diego instead of Los Angeles or Chicago. Both were surprising, somewhat random destinations given the lack of recent success for both organizations.
For both teams, however, those deals have worked out spectacularly. Machado just led the Padres to the NLCS with an MVP-caliber season, while Harper literally propelled the Phillies into the World Series with his clutch hitting during the postseason. Harper has been excellent for Philadelphia, posting a .940 OPS (150 OPS+) since arriving and adding another MVP to his collection in 2021.
The Yankees, meanwhile, haven’t gotten the best of Stanton. He barely played in both 2019 and 2020, appearing in just 41 games combined. He also missed considerable time in 2021 and 2022, exceeding 140 games just once in his five seasons with New York so far. Stanton hasn’t come close to matching his 2017 production with the Yankees, either, compiling an .839 OPS over five seasons with the Bombers and striking out far too often (29.2 percent). He also hasn’t been able to put New York over the top in the postseason, as the Yankees are still searching for their first pennant since 2009.
While New York’s decision to acquire Stanton over Harper was defensible at the time, it hasn’t aged well. The Yankees would have been better off waiting a year to sign Harper rather than taking on Stanton -- a flawed and expensive superstar in his own right. If they had, this World Series might look a lot different.
Tyler Maher is a Content Editor for The Duel who is rooting for Bryce Harper and the Phillies to beat the Astros. Follow him on Twitter @PlanetMaherz.