What it's like to lose your job to Bryce Harper

ByEddie Matz ESPN logo
Sunday, March 31, 2019

Four days before the end of spring training, Nick Williams finally bought some furniture.

The Philadelphia Phillies outfielder and his fiancée,Brianna, were moving from the furnished apartment they lived in last year to a new one that came unequipped. But Williams didn't want to pull the trigger on any new furniture because he didn't think he'd be staying in Philadelphia.

Long before the Phillies invested a third of a billion dollars in Bryce Harper, Williams began to see the writing on the outfield wall. Last season, during a four-game series in Los Angeles that kicked off on Memorial Day, he had lunch with Scott Boras -- the agent who, as fate would have it, represents both him and Harper -- and tried to get a sense of where exactly the former MVP might wind up after his contract with the Nationals expired. Two months later in Cincinnati, just after the All-Star break, Williams deleted his Twitter and Facebook accounts because he was having too much trouble tuning out the noise.

Once Harper signed, which he did exactly one month after Groundhog Day and with only slightly less pageantry than that which accompanies Punxsutawney Phil's annual appearance, the outfield graffiti came into even clearer view. When the Nike rep asked Williams whether he wanted to get custom cleats with the Phillies' colors, he said thanks but no thanks, because he didn't want to be stuck with red and blue spikes in the increasingly likely event he ended up playing for a team that wore, say, orange or navy.

His fiancée pleaded and pleaded with him, insisting they should buy furniture sooner rather than later so they wouldn't have to pay for rush delivery. But Williams refused. Like an office worker who doesn't put a single photo up on the walls of a cubicle, he was afraid to commit. And so he didn't.

Until four days before the end of spring training.

"Yes, I am. Very surprised."

It's exactly one week before Opening Day, and Williams has been asked about the trade. The one that hasn't happened. The one everyone -- including him -- was certain would have happened by now, but still hasn't and probably won't. At least not anytime soon.

"I'm surprised I haven't been traded. It's kind of crazy that I haven't been," he says.

Sitting in front of his locker early in the morning before a Grapefruit League game against the Blue Jays, Williams wears a navy blue long-sleeve shirt with a white capital B -- part of the Boras Corporation logo -- on the left side of his chest. Although business has obviously been at the forefront of his mind these past few weeks, that's not why Williams is rocking agent-licensed gear.

"It's a Lulu shirt," he says. As in Lululemon, the ubiquitous athletic apparel company. "So it's comfortable."

Now more than ever, comfort is key for Williams, who finds himself in the most uncomfortable of situations. A second-round pick of the Texas Rangers in 2012 who's always been known more for his bat than his glove, he played all three outfield positions in the minors, but none of them particularly well. Ever since making his big league debut in June 2017, he'd been predominantly a right fielder. The Phillies already had a starting center fielder in Odubel Herrera, and this past December, they spent $50 million to make former Pirates star Andrew McCutchen their starting left fielder, thereby bumping Rhys Hoskins -- who manned the position last year -- back to his natural spot at first base. A few months later, when they hired Harper to patrol right field at Citizens Bank Park, suddenly Williams became redundant. Or a fourth outfielder.

Potayto, potahto.

For what it's worth, Williams is no stranger to the business of baseball. In the summer of 2015, he knew full well that the Rangers were in dire need of left-handed pitching and that Cole Hamels -- one of the game's pre-eminent southpaws -- was on their short list. "I was worried about it," admits Williams, who at the time was one of the team's top prospects. "I didn't want to leave." But that's exactly what happened when he got traded to Philly as part of a blockbuster deadline deal that brought Hamels to Texas. A native of the Lone Star State, Williams thought he'd never get over being dumped by the club that drafted him -- the team he grew up watching.

"I didn't want it to happen," says the Galveston product, who met his fiancée while playing for the Rangers' Double-A affiliate in Frisco, just 40 miles outside of Arlington. "Had a lot of family there. Just didn't want to leave. So when I was traded, it hurt bad. And it took a while to let go of that, too."

The upside of that whole process was it helped him deal with all the whispers surrounding Harper's free agency.

"I had to learn to just keep going and not pay attention to those things cuz all it's going to do is just flood your mind, make it hard to sleep," he said. "And that's just not a good feeling when you're worried all the time about something you have no control over."

So, yeah, he deleted Twitter and Facebook.

As a result, he didn't hear about the Harper news until the day after it broke. His initial reaction?

Damn, this is gonna be a nasty team.

That's not to say the Harper signing didn't sting. But seven years into his professional career, Williams has learned how to cope with that kind of disappointment.

"I think he's done a good job of handling it," manager Gabe Kapler says of how his 25-year-old outfielder has responded to the addition of Harper.

"I just kind of put it in a box and pushed it to the side," Williams says. "Cuz I wanted to just continue having a good spring training. I didn't want to ruin it by having anger or sadness. It's never good to trap things, but I just kind of wanted to focus on what I can right now. I play for the Phillies. I love my teammates. I battle with these guys every day. That's my only focus. Just do whatever I can to help this team."

Whatever Williams can do to help the Phillies likely won't be nearly as much as he did last season. A year ago at this time, he came out of spring training as the left-handed part of a platoon with Aaron Altherr. But thanks to a hot start after the All-Star break, he more or less claimed right field as his own. Now, thanks to the Harper signing, he's on the outside looking in.Not that he's disgruntled.

"Right now," says Williams, "I'm just thinking I want to continue being a good teammate, pushing the guys in here. Just do whatever I can to, not necessarily stand out in the position I'm in, but just to be able do some damage with these guys and be able to help in some way."

There are good reasons Williams is in his current position. For starters, Bryce Harper is, well, Bryce Harper. What's more, Williams' 25 percent strikeout rate last year, though down from his rookie season, was still one of the highest on the team. In the field, he accounted for minus-17 runs saved, fourth worst among National League outfielders (Harper's minus-26 was second worst). Still, between his second-round pedigree, his relative youth and his left-handed power bat (17 home runs in 407 at-bats in 2018), it's not unreasonable to think other clubs in need of outfield help might come knocking on Philly's door.

"I think I'm a decent player," says Williams, addressing the question of a hypothetical trade. "I think [the Phillies] could get something they need."

Then again, maybe the Phillies -- whose World Series odds improved to 12-1 after adding Harper, second in the NL behind only the Dodgers -- don't need much. Or maybe it's just that their need for an athletic and affordable fourth outfielder who has proved he can pinch hit is greater than whatever other needs they might still have.

"One of the things that we think about with Nick is how powerful he is off the bench," says Kapler of Williams, who is .387 as a pinch hitter in his young career. "Who's that lefty that's going to bang a home run, or a double in the gap? Right now, Nick looks like that option. But it's also possible that he gets a start here and there in left and right field."

Or maybe even somewhere in between.

Four days before the end of spring training, on the same day he and his fiancée finally ordered furniture, Nick Williams found himself in the middle of the Phillies' outfield.

It was the first time in more than 18 months he saw his name penciled into the starting lineup of any game -- Grapefruit League or regular season -- with the number 8 written beside it.

A few minutes before first pitch, Williams stood there on a glorious sunny day at Spectrum Field, a step or two into the outfield grass behind second base, holding his cap over his chest and facing the flags in center field. Immediately to his left was McCutchen. On his right, Harper.

It marked the first time that Philly's former starting right fielder and new starting right fielder had started in the same game, and now here they were standing side-by-side for the national anthem. As if the situation weren't potentially awkward enough already, Williams and Harper stood frozen like that for twice as long as they normally would because Philly was hosting Toronto, which meant two national anthems instead of one.

After the anthem anthology, Williams and Harper donned their caps and jogged out to their respective posts, where they proceeded to play catch with each other in Scene 2 of "The Odd Couple: Clearwater."

With two outs in the top of the second inning, after Harper had launched his first home run as a Phillies player in the bottom of the first, Toronto's Randal Grichuk lifted a lazy fly headed directly toward right-center. Or center-right. That's how completely in the middle of the gap the ball was located.

At first, it looked like Williams was going to take charge and catch it, as any center fielder typically does in the event of a tweener. But Harper came charging over hard and called for it at the top of his lungs for all of South Florida to hear. Williams ultimately yielded to the Third Of A Billion Dollar Man and watched as the ball nestled safely into Harper's glove for the final out.

As they jogged in toward the third-base dugout, the two outfielders chatted the entire way. Smiling. Laughing. Putting their gloves over their mouths while they talked, as ballplayers reflexively do these days, as if to prevent the Blue Jays or perhaps the scouts in attendance from deciphering their deepest trade secrets.

A couple of hours later, after both players had been pulled from the game and replaced by soon-to-be minor leaguers, Williams sat in front of his locker once again, checking his phone.

"I wasn't thinking about it too much," he said when asked what it was like to be out there with Harper. What it was like to stand side-by-side with the guy who changed his job status from full time to part time. To play catch with him. To defer to him. "He's my teammate. I was just excited to be out there."

Then he returned to his phone, presumably to tend to more important matters.

Like tracking his furniture delivery.