If there’s a bottom line 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 broken thumb after being hit by a pitch, causing him to miss two months and 52 games on the injured list. That was about six weeks after an MRI revealed a tear in his right UCL, which forced him into permanent designated hitter duties.
None of that has slowed Harper down while he’s been in the lineup, and the hope from the Phillies’ perspective is that the process won’t affect his game-changing presence in the batter’s box. However, the uphill climb back to the Fall Classic just got decidedly steeper.
After initial reports pegged Harper back in mid-May, the team revealed that the real expectation is for him to return 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 top players and puts the team in a more precarious position in terms of putting together a reasonably strong lineup in the interim.
A lot of ink has been spilled on the Phillies’ shaky defense in recent years, but that rudimentary reputation outweighed the actual results, as Philadelphia made big strides in that department by the end of the year. Those improvements came mostly in the infield, though the outfield defense was greatly bolstered 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 for the Phillies for the foreseeable future, and if he continues his starting career, he’ll be a star there.
For the Phillies to last three-plus months without Harper, they will have to be. Because while Philadelphia stayed alive — and eventually moved up — 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 compensate for their defensive shortcomings . Now, he won’t be there at all (at least for the first half of the season), making the margin for error that much smaller and Marsh’s defensive contribution that much more vital.
Beyond the outfield, Philadelphia’s offense also needs a middle infielder, either to replace Jean Segura (who is currently a free agent) at second base or a shortstop to go over Bryson Stott. Maybe that means Dave Dombrowski will target one of the “Big Four” shortstops and add more star power to the lineup. In short, a bounce-back season from Castellanos would go a long way in steadying the ship in Harper’s absence.
In the first season of the five-year, $100 million contract, Castellanos’ production collapsed. He hit just 13 homers, his fewest since his rookie year, while posting career lows in OPS+ (95), slugging percentage (.126) and walk rate (5.2%). A quick look at the Statcast page shows a lot more blue than you’d like to see, and he’ll be age 31 in 2023. That’s not to say a rebound is out of the question—he had a decent 109 OPS+ in the second half—but the pressure to start producing results will only increase now that Castellanos will be relied on even more.
As for Harper playing while still recovering from major elbow surgery, the track record for position players undergoing a similar experience is slim. Recently, Shohei Ohtani spent a year as a DH after having Tommy John surgery 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 about the same time as Harper. Ohtani was quite productive at the plate that season, which bodes well for Harper’s prospects when he finally returns to action ready.
Compared to last season’s string of misfortunes—from Harper’s injuries to a 21–29 start and a midseason coaching change—this might seem like a blip on the radar. But the burden of missing the face of the franchise for more than half the season can create a heavier burden than expected, even with a strong roster. There were moments during Philadelphia’s magical October run when Harper seemed to work magic with his bat when his team needed it most. For the Phillies’ 2023 prospects, hopefully he’ll have a few more left in the tank for the rocky road ahead.
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