How Trea Turner and Bryce Harper were reunited with Phillies
IN RECENT SEASONS, whenever Philadelphia Phillies star Bryce Harper reached second base against the Washington Nationals — and then the Los Angeles Dodgers — he made a midgame recruiting pitch to an old friend. Harper knew Trea Turner was still a couple of years from free agency, but as long as his former teammate was within earshot, he wanted to plant a seed.
“For the last three years, he kept telling me, ‘We’re going to get you over here, we’re going to get you over here,’” Turner told ESPN in March. “It started as a joke, then as it got closer and [the Phillies] were in win-now mode, everything lined up. He was a big factor, for sure.”
Harper remembers the chatter on the basepaths. “Every time I’d see him at shortstop, I’d mess with him: ‘You’d look great in a Phillies uniform,’” the two-time National League MVP said.
Whether or not those whisperings were the difference-maker — Harper said he left Turner alone once his free agency actually started — the strategy paid off. Turner signed an 11-year, $300 million contract with the Phillies in December, reuniting with Harper. The two have yet to take the field together; Harper is still working his way back from offseason Tommy John surgery. But as Harper zooms through his recovery, it could happen sooner than later.
When he does, he’ll join a lineup that despite a slow start is second only to the Rays in the majors in hits; Turner’s 31, good for third-best on the squad, show how quickly he has settled in in Philadelphia.
“It’s definitely a lot better having him on this side than what I used to deal with,” Phillies catcher J.T Realmuto said. “He was never one of those players you ever looked forward to facing. He’s so dynamic and can impact the game in so many ways. He creates havoc and plays with power.”
WHEN TURNER HIT free agency as the top shortstop in a loaded class at the position, many experts predicted he would end up in Philadelphia — but he insists it was a tough decision.
“I didn’t want to be super-biased in any direction,” Turner explained. “Going through the process, I tried being as open as I could with everybody. I told teams, ‘Just be honest with me and I’ll be honest with you.’ It was a pretty hard decision. I had a few good organizations that I was dealing with. I didn’t really have one that I could eliminate pretty easily.”
While crossing off potential suitors proved difficult, there was one factor that helped Turner move Philadelphia to the top of his list: familiarity. He had played with Harper, Kyle Schwarber, and Howie Kendrick, a special assistant to the GM in Philadelphia, during his time in Washington. Phillies hitting coach Kevin Long also was a former Nat. His experience with those players and coaches, along with years of road trips to the city, also meant that the Phillies didn’t feel the need to bring Turner in for a recruiting visit. Instead, they made a November trip to his Florida home.
“I don’t think we needed to meet to know that he would be a good fit,” Dombrowski said. “Enough people knew him well, but you do your due diligence. You don’t leave any stone unturned.”
At that point in the process, it wouldn’t have been a surprise if Harper had gotten involved in the sales pitch in hopes of using his relationship to help bring Turner to Philadelphia. But he instead chose to give his former teammate space.
“I didn’t want to talk to Trea,” Harper stated. “I didn’t want to have any influence on what he was going to do. He was like three to four days away from signing with the team, and he finally called me and asked certain things about where to live and things like that. I told him to enjoy it and hopefully you make the right decision for your family.
“The city, the fans, they sold it for us last year,” Harper said. “I didn’t have to.”
It wasn’t just the idea of playing in front of the passionate crowds that packed Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park during last October’s playoff run that attracted Turner, though. Owner John Middleton’s endearing style — and willingness to open up his checkbook — also helped make the decision for him.
“He’s exceeded expectations for me,” Turner said of getting to know Middleton. “He’s been incredible. Seeing him around, shagging on the field and in the clubhouse, it doesn’t feel invading to us. Super unique and it’s in a good way.”
Harper had grown similarly close to Middleton during his own free agency four years ago, so the Phillies owner made sure Harper could be the first to give his old friend a congratulatory call as soon as a deal was struck.
“I think [Turner] was a little shocked because no one had found out yet,” Harper said. “It was a couple hours before it hit the news. I was pumped for him.”
BEFORE HE EVEN played his first game in a Phillies uniform, Turner put to rest any notion that he would just be Harper’s sidekick, thanks to a World Baseball Classic performance in which he outshined even the biggest names on Team USA’s star-studded roster.
“It was electric,” said Realmuto, who also played for Team USA this spring. “He won multiple games with his bat. Everyone knows about his batting average and speed, but he can hit for power as well. He can hit home runs when he needs to. He can affect the game in so many ways.”
Though Team USA fell one win short of repeating as champions, Turner led the tournament with five home runs, hitting .391, driving in 11 and compiling an eye-popping 1.483 OPS. It was his eighth-inning grand slam against Venezuela in the quarterfinals that kept Team USA alive during one of its toughest WBC contests. Back in Clearwater, where the Phillies train during the spring, they were all smiles watching their new shortstop put on a show for the world.
“A couple people in the organization sarcastically said to me, ‘Oh, that’s a good player you got, Dave,’” Dombrowski said with a laugh.
That power he showed off in the WBC was coaxed out of him by one of his new coaches. Known for his base-stealing ability, Turner took his game to another level when he added power to his repertoire under Long’s tutelage. He averaged 36 stolen bases in his first six full seasons and he has also averaged nearly 22 home runs a season over the past four years. Add in his on-base skills and ability to play multiple up-the-middle positions defensively, and there aren’t many players who can do as many things well as Turner can.
“That’s five tools right there,” Schwarber said. “He’s got it all. He’s got the power strike with the leg kick, then he can put his foot down and go two-strike approach. Put the ball in play and run. He steals bases. His defense is underrated. Glad we have him.”
Now that he’s settling into his long-term home, Turner believes his best is yet to come. Sure, a lengthy contract can create pressure — but it also allows an opportunity to focus on his game, without the stress of free agency looming.
“I have a lot more to offer,” Turner said. “I love the game. I take pride in it. I work at it. I have more to give. I don’t know what that is, but I’m looking forward to it.”
Likewise, fans across Philadelphia are looking ahead to a date in the not-so-distant future when they’ll see Turner and Harper in the same lineup. Whether the two can help the Phillies overcome a slow start and play deep into the postseason — as the team famously did a year ago — remains to be seen. But no matter how this season plays out, the duo is likely to spend the rest of their careers in the same uniform.
“It’s great to be together again to try to chase down a championship,” Harper, who is in the fifth year of a 13-year contract that runs through 2031, said with a smile. “He has an 11-year deal [through 2033], so hopefully I can get a couple more on my contract.”