CLEARWATER, Fla. — On the night before the Philadelphia Phillies’ first full-squad workout of spring training, as he was still batting around in his head what his message to the assembled players would be, Gabe Kapler’s phone kept buzzing. Each time, it was another news-headline push notification telling him something that, owing to some well-sourced insider knowledge, he strongly suspected to be untrue: that the Phillies were closing in on a deal to sign Bryce Harper.
“They were just like, ‘Pop, pop, pop’ — here’s a story, here’s a story,” Kapler, the Phillies’ manager, recalled Monday afternoon at Spectrum Field. “At some point you just say, ‘What does any of this mean?’ … After the fourth ‘The deal is complete’ headline, I stopped. Just like you guys, I stopped taking it seriously.”
If only real life were as easy as turning off push notifications on a smartphone, the Phillies might get to enjoy a peaceful, distraction-free spring, one in which the focus is on all the talent amassed in their clubhouse — populated by newly acquired stars such as left fielder Andrew McCutchen, catcher J.T. Realmuto, reliever David Robertson and shortstop Jean Segura — instead of on players who are not on the roster.
“Easy to say, hard to do, right — to stay in the present?” said Rhys Hoskins, the Phillies first baseman who has hit 52 homers in his first 728 big league at-bats. “If we keep our focus inside this clubhouse, staring out across at each other, and not trying to look out the door, we’re going to be much better off.”
Even as this winter’s free agent market teeters toward the end of its fourth month, the ongoing unemployment of that market’s two biggest names — Harper and Manny Machado — continues to consume a huge chunk of baseball’s collective bandwidth. And nowhere is that felt more profoundly than in Clearwater, where the Phillies, widely seen as the favorites to land one of the 26-year-old sluggers, on Monday had their first full-squad workout.
“Not today. Not today. Today, the focus is on the players in this camp,” Kapler said when asked whether his message to the full group on Day 1 of full-squad workouts contained any reference to Harper and/or Machado, or the attendant rumor mills. “This is a special time for the players. I’d never want to take the focus away from them.”
But the madness envelopes the Phillies at every turn, even if they choose mostly to ignore it. On Saturday, it was Hoskins’s Instagram account at the center of the storm, as media members noted a comment from Harper himself, saying, “Suhhhhh kiiiiiiid” — roughly translated as “Hi” — below one of Hoskins’s posts.
On Sunday, the storm shifted to Twitter, where several media reports suggested the Phillies’ talks with Harper were “intensifying,” and where other users were tracking in real time a private plane apparently departing Las Vegas, Harper’s hometown, and heading for Clearwater. There was never any evidence, however, that Harper was onboard.
It has long been assumed the Phillies — whose owner, John Middleton, famously told USA Today in November that he was prepared to be “a little stupid” in spending this winter — would wind up with one of the superstar sluggers, and they were widely thought to prefer Machado to Harper, owing to Machado’s defensive prowess at third base and/or shortstop and the familiarity with him of the Phillies’ front office, some members of which were in Baltimore when the Orioles drafted and developed him.
That seems to have changed in recent weeks, perhaps following the front office’s visit to Harper in Las Vegas in January. But at this late date, the dynamic might best be viewed as an either-or proposition, with the Phillies prepared to do business with whichever player accepts their offer first — though probably not, as some might prefer, both.
“Everyone knows they’re really, really good players,” second baseman Cesar Hernandez said Monday. “If it’s one of them, it’s one of them. If we can get both of them, I’ll take both of them.”
On Monday, as the Phillies dressed for their workout, their clubhouse featured empty lockers next to those of veterans McCutchen, Realmuto, Segura and Jake Arrieta. As they walked out onto the back fields of the complex shortly after 11 a.m. — the loudspeakers, somewhat incongruously, blasting Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” — they were 60-strong in number, ranging from uniform No. 2 (Segura) to 96 (reliever Tommy Hunter).
Nobody wore Nos. 13 or 34 — Machado and Harper’s numbers — although, in Harper’s case, it is unclear whether 34 is even an option, because it once belonged to Roy Halladay, the Phillies’ late ace and a recent first-ballot Hall of Fame electee.
The Phillies, understandably, have grown weary of answering questions about Harper and Machado, but with any resolution to their statuses still perhaps days away, the questions are not going anywhere. And at some point, the process of forming and nurturing a clubhouse culture — which began in earnest Monday — could be jolted by the sudden introduction of a superstar figure, whether Harper or Machado, with enough personality and presence to permanently alter that culture.
“A lot of us have come up together” through the Phillies’ farm system, Hoskins said. “We already know each other. And there are new guys in here we’re trying to mesh with. We’re using these six weeks to get ready on the field — but more so, this is about us becoming a team. Obviously there’s a lot of stuff going on outside. But that’s outside this clubhouse. We’re trying to make this clubhouse as cohesive and as strong as possible.”
At the end of the workout, Kapler stopped at the door leading to the Phillies’ clubhouse to answer another question about some players who aren’t on his team. He did so without an ounce of annoyance or frustration. He had his cellphone in the pocket of his uniform pants, but the push notifications, presumably, were still turned off.
“Would one of these free agents make our club a whole lot better? Absolutely. Everybody knows that,” Kapler said. “But I can’t control it. My goal is to really focus on the fundamentals of our practice: Are we running our bunt plays effectively and efficiently? And any time my focus is taken away from those things, I’m not as good at my job.”
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