As certain as it was that the Atlanta Braves never had a shot at Bryce Harper — by mutual decision — there remained hope that at least he’d spend the rest of his career outside of the National League East.
Alas, no such luck. Harper’s 13-year contract with the Philadelphia Phillies, with no opt-out for Harper and a full no-trade clause, means Braves fans must accept having to face the hitter who enjoys tormenting them for 18-19 games a year. (Yes, divisional realignment could change that, but for now that remains in the long-range plans only.)
Harper hit 183 home runs in six seasons with the Washington Nationals. Twenty-five of those came against the Braves, more than any team in baseball. Yes, that’s due largely to A) playing 112 games against Atlanta and B) the Braves being in rebuilding mode for four of those six seasons.
Harper terrorized the Mets, Marlins and even the Phillies to similar extents. But there seemed to be a particular mutual hate between the Braves and Harper, perhaps because Atlanta pitchers hit him four times, again more than any other team. To have him out of the division would have been a positive step for the Braves.
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So much for that.
Even so, while the Phillies have been throwing around money in the offseason like a lottery winner, the Braves have stuck to their plan of building through their bountiful farm system and carving the financial fat from their payroll.
The day before news broke that the Phillies and Harper agreed to a $330 million deal, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that the Braves’ revenue had soared for the second straight year, to $442 million. This is up from $262 million in 2016, their last season at Turner Field. This influx of revenue is exactly why they justified abandoning downtown Atlanta for Cobb County.
The promise was that a chunk of that revenue would be pumped back into the payroll to remain competitive.
And while it’s certainly foolish to believe corporate greed will not influence their decisions down the road, it does make sense that the front office is trusting the internal scouting reports and player development staff that there’s enough talent in the farm system to remain competitive for years to come.
Some of these talented prospects helped push the Braves to the NL East title last season — mainly Ronald Acuna Jr., Ozzie Albies, Johann Camargo, Mike Foltynewicz and Sean Newcomb, along with several relief pitchers who showed varying amounts of promise. But many more prospects who are at least as talented as those (with the exception of Acuna) if not more talented are close to joining them.
So sure, they could have afforded to package a few of these prospects in a deal to get J.T. Realmuto from Miami. The problem is no matter how good their scouts and player development people are, it’s not a given that any of those prospects will be stars. But it’s almost a statistical certainly that some will be busts, or at least will fall short of projections. One of the most promising of these young players is pitcher Mike Soroka, who missed much of last season with shoulder soreness and has already been shut down in spring training.
Another season in the minor leagues, or in some cases with the big league club, will provide the front office with a lot more information on these players.
That’s not to concede the NL East this year to the Phillies. The Braves still have a solid team that almost certainly will be tweaked between now and June. Maybe even a little more than tweaked.