If there’s any silver lining to the news of Bryce Harper’s Tommy John surgery announcement, it’s that the Phillies have been through this before.
It was late June when Harper suffered a fractured thumb after being hit by a pitch, causing him to miss two months and 52 games on the injured list. This was roughly six weeks after an MRI revealed a tear in his right UCL, which forced him into permanent designated hitter duties.
None of this slowed Harper down while he was in the lineup, and the hope from the Phillies’ standpoint is that the procedure won’t impact his game-altering presence in the batter’s box. Still, the uphill climb toward a return to the Fall Classic just got inarguably steeper.
After initial reports earmarked Harper’s return for mid-May, the team revealed that the actual expectation is for him to be back by the All-Star break as the team’s DH. That’s a three-and-a-half month absence for one of the game’s premier hitters, and puts the team in a more precarious position in regards to patching together a stout enough lineup in the interim.
Much ink has been spilled on the Phillies’ wobbly defense in recent years, but that substandard reputation outlived the actual results, as Philadelphia made great strides in that department by year’s end. Those improvements were mostly gained in the infield, though the outfield defense was greatly boosted by the midseason trade for Brandon Marsh, who was actually an American League Gold Glove finalist in left field for his work with the Angels. He’ll man center field for the Phillies for the foreseeable future, and if he continues on his early career trajectory, he’ll be a star there.
For the Phillies to withstand three-plus months without Harper, he’ll have to be. Because while Philadelphia stayed afloat—and eventually surged up the standings—in 2022 as Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos made a combined 260 defensive starts, they did so largely with Harper’s bat still in the lineup to help offset their defensive shortcomings. Now, he won’t be there at all (at least for the season’s first half), making the margin of error that much slimmer, and Marsh’s defensive contributions that much more vital.
Beyond the outfield, Philadelphia’s offense also still needs a middle infielder, either to replace Jean Segura (who’s currently a free agent) at second base or a shortstop to shift over Bryson Stott. Perhaps that means Dave Dombrowski will target one of the “Big Four” shortstops and add more star power to the lineup. Short of that, a rebound season from Castellanos would go a long way toward keeping the ship steady in Harper’s absence.
In his first season of a five-year, $100 million contract, Castellanos’s production cratered. He launched just 13 homers, his fewest since his rookie year, while posting career lows in OPS+ (95), isolated power (.126) and walk rate (5.2%). A quick glance at his Statcast page shows much more blue than you’d like to see, and he’ll be in his age-31 season in 2023. That’s not to say that a rebound is out of the question—he had a decent 109 OPS+ in the second half—but the pressure to start turning in results will only build now that Castellanos will be relied upon even more.
As far as Harper playing while still recovering from serious elbow surgery, the track record for position players undergoing a similar experience is slim. Recently, Shohei Ohtani spent a year as a DH after getting Tommy John surgery in between the 2018 and ’19 seasons. He went under the knife in October and was playing in MLB games in early May, about seven months after the procedure and roughly the same timeframe as Harper. Ohtani was plenty productive at the plate that season, a good omen for Harper’s prospects when he eventually gets back to being game ready.
Compared to last season’s series of misadventures—from Harper’s injuries to a 21–29 start and a midseason managerial change—this might appear to be a blip on the radar. But the weight of missing the face of the franchise for more than half of the season can create a heavier burden than anticipated, even with a strong roster. There were times during Philadelphia’s magical October run when Harper seemed to wield magic in his bat when his team needed it most. For the Phillies’ 2023 chances, hopefully he’s left some more in the tank for the rocky road ahead.
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