Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Today is the day Bryce Harper reports to spring training. While it’s certainly fun to wait for Harper’s return from reconstructive elbow surgery, his grand entrance into the heart of the Phillies’ lineup will have to wait a few months. He has been “dry swinging” as part of his rehab, swinging without hitting a baseball, and is not expected to return to the active roster until sometime around the All-Star break. The defense will wait even longer, with Harper not expected to truly be ready to play on the field until the end of the regular season. That would mean multiple simultaneous servings of Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos off the field, something the FDA would surely strongly oppose if consulted.
The Phillies did some good things this offseason. By far the team’s biggest move was signing former Dodgers shortstop Trea Turner to a massive deal totaling $300 million over 11 years. I was a fan of the signing because it recognized that despite ending 2022 just two wins short of a World Series title, the Phillies were also a third-place finisher 14 games back of the division championship. With no expectations of a collapse from the Braves or Mets, it was important to improve the roster offensively wherever possible. Signing Turner allows incumbent shortstop Bryson Stott to move into Jean Segura’s vacant role at second base, upgrading both positions.
But I wasn’t a fan of how the Phillies handled the Harper situation from a roster standpoint. This is a team that should have been motivated to upgrade its outfield even in the alternate universe where Harper never requires Tommy John surgery. As it currently stands, the team’s depth, which is basically Jake Cave and Josh Harrison, would have a lot of trouble even replacing Brandon Marsh, let alone the 2021 MVP. Dalton Guthrie and Símon Muzziotti are also unlikely to be answers. not a single pitching system housed here on site has either with a 90 wRC+ in 2023. That the team did nothing to address this issue after Knowing that Harper would be unavailable for a significant chunk of the season is either confusing or infuriating, depending on whether you root for the Phils.
The team has yet to commit to a DH scheme, at least publicly, and it seems likely that players will rotate through the position to keep them fresh. But rotation is not the same thing as replacement, as the same motley crew of backups will play other positions when not DHing. None of the reserves/minor leaguers listed above or Edmundo Sosa are even likely to be replacement level at designated hitter. The closest thing the Phillies have to a viable offensive option is Darick Hall, who has shown power in his short stint in 2023, but also poor discipline and a poor contact rate. ZiPS is easily the most bullish of the FanGraphs projection systems here and even pegs Hall for only a .225/.299/.434 line and a 103 wRC+, rather below average for a starting DH. Nor does it seem like the Phillies are content (at least not yet) to just plug him into the position for three months, which might be the least damaging internal solution.
In terms of projected wins, the Phillies are right in this bracket where adding a win is the most valuable. Win number 110 or 60 has virtually no effect on a team’s playoff fate, but win numbers 86 and 87 certainly do. A four-win player (Harper’s projection) who misses half a season is two wins. Two wins is about what getting an MVP candidate will get you at the trade deadline, which teams are giving up significant value. So how big is Philadelphia’s strangely relaxed approach? Let’s start with the ZiPS projection, which currently assumes 75 games for Harper. Here are the updated predicted scores with this assumption:
|Club||W||large||gigabytes||Pct||Div%||TOILET%||Playoff %||WS Win%|
|New York Mets||94||68||—||.580||42.6%||42.1%||84.6%||11.0%|
This is similar to the projection I ran a few weeks ago – not much has changed – and leaves the Phillies as essentially a coin flip to get into the playoffs, with a real chance to upset and win the division, though they would need lots of dice to roll their way. Now, here are the same projections, but with a few different totals for the number of games Harper can play at DH. The first column is the default view of 75 games from above:
In the worst-case scenario, where something goes wrong with Harper’s rehab and he misses the season, ZiPS estimates the Phillies would lose 10.3 percentage points of playoff chance. To put that into context, when I did a similar exercise last year with everyone in the National League in late June, only Corbin Burns had a bigger impact on his team’s playoff chances. Indeed, of the millions of simulations of the 2022 season I ran, 40% of them saw the Phillies make a Rocky II and to do it the second time the charm would have vanished into the ether if Harper hadn’t returned.
At the time of Harper’s surgery, the Phillies had a myriad of options, even if you ignore the unrealistic ones (like signing Aaron Judge or cheating someone to get Castellano’s contract) or the fun, ambitious ones (like signing Brandon Nimmo from down The Mets’ noses and play him in right and then move him to center when Harper returned). Brandon Drury in the DH projects as a higher option than any of the Phillies reserves and would be a better flex option than Harrison. Wil Myers signed a one-year contract with the Reds for relative peanuts. Trey Mancini’s two-year, $16 million deal was more expensive (macadamias?), but he’s also better and would provide an emergency option if Rhys Hoskins leaves after 2023. most The pessimistic projection for JD Martinez (the Steamer’s in this case) has him at a 111 wRC+ and signed with the Dodgers for one year and $10 million. Jurickson Profar remains at large. he could get DH reps against lefties and provide underrated value elsewhere the rest of the year. Given Harper’s potential eventual return, the Phillies may not have been the first for all of these players, but better options were seemingly available.
The Phillies aren’t likely to make the playoffs winning just 85 games. Indeed, the scenarios in which the playoffs go are generally what they are exceed their projections. Digging through a million sims, 87 wins gave a team just the third Wild Card spot at halftime, with the over/under to take the NL East the highest in baseball at 98.4 wins.
|NL Wild Card 1||88.9||90.5||91.7||92.8||93.8||94.8||95.9||97.3||99.3|
|NL Wild Card 2||85.6||87.1||88.2||89.1||89.9||90.8||91.8||92.9||94.5|
|NL Wild Card 3||83.1||84.5||85.5||86.3||87.2||88.0||88.9||89.9||91.4|
If the team was going to change course at this point, a trade would likely be necessary. Now, I certainly wouldn’t send Andrew Painter or Mick Abel out of town for an at-bat, but there’s someone else in the system who is Really intact in exchange for some high leverage wins? ZiPS had the organization with two prospects between no. 101 and no. 200 in his Top 100 (Griff McGarry at no. 106) and Hao-Yu Lee at no. 158), and I can’t imagine I’d hang on to them if the right trade opportunity became available.
In trying to finish last year’s unfinished business, the Phillies lost one of the league’s most valuable players and chose not to actually replace him. Phils fans better hope Harper is as good at healing as he is at crushing fastballs a mile. If not, the team’s lax approach could prove fatal to their playoff hopes.