Said Harper on the Braves’ first baseman: “Freddie is one of the best guys in the league on and off the field. Good guy, great player. Can’t really say too much about him. He’s an awesome person. I look forward to getting to first base a bit to talk to him every day (laughs). He’s a great player and person, and I wish him the best. I like playing against him and watching him from afar as well.”
Harper’s decision rocked the baseball landscape, but it didn’t change much for the Braves. His trek up I-95 just ensured they’ll continue sparring with him for National League East titles. Harper has hit .276 with 25 homers, 67 RBIs and a .908 OPS in 113 games against the Braves.
The Phillies right fielder, just 26, welcomes the rebuilt Braves’ best efforts for the next decade plus.
“I think one through nine they’ve got a great mix of veteran guys, young guys as well,” said Harper, whose first hit as a Phillie was a rocketed home run off Jesse Biddle on Saturday. “Of course you always fear Freddie Freeman because of who he is. But (Ronald) Acuna, (Ozzie) Albies – those two guys are going to be studs for a long period of time. The pitching staff, too, the young guys in the bullpen. They’ve got a bright future.”
Harper speaks glowingly of Acuna. Harper debuted as a much-anticipated 19-year-old, while Acuna cracked the bigs at 20. When the conversation began by talking about the Braves’ young talent, he often directed it back to the Rookie of The Year.
“Acuna, just an unbelievable talent from the right side of the plate,” Harper said. “He plays good defense. He plays hard. He takes the extra bag when he wants to. He’s just a really good talent and really good player.”
Harper is well-versed in handling the pressure of being the next big thing. He graced the Sports Illustrated cover as a 16-year-old. He spent years under the spotlight, much like LeBron James and other elite talents noticed earlier than usual.
Like Acuna, he embraced the attention and excelled early. Harper believes Acuna’s personality is a large reason why he’s done the same.
“Acuna has fun,” Harper said of the 21-year-old who’s garnered preseason MVP whispers. “He enjoys the game that he plays. He plays for a great organization and a great team. The guys around him let him be himself. They let him be Acuna. That’s all you have to do. He’s young, but he’s here for a reason. He understands the game. If he keeps doing what he’s doing, he’s going to have an unbelievable career and I look forward to watching him.”
It wasn’t only Acuna who drew Harper’s praise. He loves Albies (“he can field almost better than anybody”) and lauded Bryse Wilson and Kyle Wright, the pair of rookie pitchers starting the final two games of the opening series.
Harper rattled off his baseball knowledge: He knew A.J. Minter was a Texas A&M product, he knew Wright was from Vanderbilt. He was impressed by the combination of high school and collegiately developed pitchers. In other words, he knew his Braves trivia.
“You have guys who have thrown in those high-pressure situations of baseball,” Harper said. “It just translates to the big leagues. They’re not scared. They’re not nervous. They just go out there and pitch and do what they can.”
Some Braves fans dreamed of a Freeman-Harper union, though the former said that was never on the table. Rather than be the biggest free agent signing in Braves history, Harper was destined to become their life-long rival.
And when the Phillies’ contract became official, so did years of Freeman versus Harper in the division both deem baseball’s best.
“I think (the NL East) is (the best),” Harper said. “I think the AL East is going to be really good as well. But if you look at this division, up and down - you have Miami and things like that - but the Mets, Nationals, Atlanta; it’s so good pitching-wise, young player-wise. If you look at Miami, they’re so young in the next couple years they’re going to be good as well. It’s a really good division so I look forward to playing in it. It’s a juggernaut for sure.”