Phillies Seek Outfielder at Bargain Bryce

© Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

No National League team benefited more from the universal DH this year than the Philadelphia Phillies. The torn UCL Bryce Harper suffered in April would’ve been a season-ending injury for any Phillies outfielder from 1883 to 2019, but Harper was able to get a platelet-rich plasma injection, grit his teeth, and DH the rest of the way. You’re probably familiar with what ensued: Philadelphia’s first playoff berth in 11 years, numerous loud home runs and memorable GIFs, “swing of his life,” and so on and so forth.

Unfortunately for Harper, eventually someone had to open up his throwing arm and see precisely what had gone wrong in there. Last week, Dr. Neal ElAttrache — there’s a name you never want to see in a news story about your team’s best player — broke out his scalpel and went spelunking.

For months, Harper and the Phillies settled into a position of anxious uncertainty; perhaps the damage to his elbow wouldn’t be so bad. An Opening Day start in right field was probably too much to ask for, but maybe he could rehab in the offseason and get back to throwing by mid-spring. This is a situation that ought to be familiar to anyone who’s sat in their mechanic’s waiting room and hoped that the phrase “blown head gasket” would not be part of the day’s conversation.

Unfortunately, Dr. ElAttrache was forced to perform another dreaded proper noun: Tommy John surgery. In short, you can take that depth chart with Harper in right field and throw it right in the trash. Now, the party line is that Harper will return to the lineup as a DH around the All-Star break, and maybe start playing the outfield again by the end of the 2023 regular season.

This obviously leaves the Phillies in a bit of an awkward spot. Surely they did not want to kick off their defense of the NL pennant by going three or four months without their franchise player. So what is there to be done?

The first option worth discussing: Try to replace Harper. Since joining the Phillies in 2019, Harper has hit .282/.394/.546 in a hair under 2,000 plate appearances. Over the past four seasons, he leads Phillies hitters (minimum 400 plate appearances) in the following categories: home runs, doubles, runs scored, walks, stolen bases (tied with J.T. Realmuto), RBI, walk rate, batting average, OBP, slugging percentage, wOBA, wRC+, and WPA. Even for half a season, that’s a lot to live without.

But the qualities that make Harper so valuable also make him nearly impossible to replace. The only like-for-like right fielder on the market is Aaron Judge. Much ink was spilled on how beefy the Phillies became last offseason; if they want to pursue the only man who can make this team even beefier in 2023, more power to them. But don’t hold your breath. Taking projected arbitration raises into account, the Phillies already have $190.7 million earmarked against the luxury tax for this coming year. That doesn’t include the likely replacements for (and/or upgrades over) the departing Jean Segura, Kyle Gibson, Noah Syndergaard, and David Robertson. Or the tens of millions in 2024 money that will be required to either extend or replace Aaron Nola, Rhys Hoskins, and José Alvarado.

More to the point, even with Harper out, the Phillies already have an entrenched starter at first base and two $20 million-a-year corner outfielders. And Harper will be back to DH in a matter of months — what money they do spend will go further if spent on a middle infielder and one or more pitchers.

So let’s look at the internal options. Harper’s two-month absence with a broken thumb, as well as Nick Castellanos’ three-week spell on the sidelines with an oblique strain in September, should offer some indication of how the Phillies would deal with a vacancy in right field and in the middle of their lineup. If you watched any of Philadelphia’s playoff run this fall, you might have noticed a group of large and hyperactive 20-somethings bouncing around in the Phillies’ dugout. This is the group of players who will likely replace Harper.

The pieces fall into line a little more easily than they would have otherwise because the Phillies’ deadline center field acquisition was not a rental but Brandon Marsh, a 24-year-old who’s under team control through the 2027 season. Marsh, a former top prospect who struggled to hit with the Angels, should at the very least be a plus defender in center and a playable bat against right-handed pitchers. If he learns to hit lefties, that would obviate the need for a platoon partner and free Matt Vierling up to play the short side of a job share in right. But let’s not count on that. Símon Muzziotti would also have been an option to fill in, but while he’s about a third the size of Marsh, he is also a left-handed-hitting, glove-first center fielder, which limits his utility.

Next up: Dalton Guthrie, who was awesome, as in a .500 OBP, while filling in for Castellanos. You might remember him as one of the guys who stood between Jonathan India and Pete Alonso on the 2016 Florida Gators’ infield. If not, that’s your loss. In his limited big league action, Guthrie showed a keen batting eye, top-end speed, and decent contact ability. And in 374 plate appearances at Triple-A, Guthrie raked; a .302/.363/.476 line with 10 homers and 21 stolen bases is nothing to sneeze at.

The downside? That sample was very limited, just 28 plate appearances over 14 games. The sum total of Guthrie’s postseason contribution was one pinch running/defensive replacement appearance in an NLDS game that could’ve been decided by mercy rule. Guthrie neither batted nor touched the ball in the outfield, which should give an indication of where he stands in the Phillies’ pecking order. And he’s a 160-pound rookie outfielder who will turn 27 before Christmas. That’s not exactly the kind of prospect profile that turns heads. Guthrie will probably get a chance to impress in spring training, but shouldn’t count on regular playing time.

The DH-iest option to replace Harper is Darick Hall, a 6-foot-4 former two-way college player who hit 28 home runs in Triple-A last year and nine more in the majors. In 142 plate appearances with the Phillies, Hall slugged .522 and had a 120 wRC+. But he also walked just 3.5% of the time and posted an OBP of .282, which makes him more useful as a “hey maybe he’ll run into one here” pinch hitting option than as an everyday starter at a position on the low end of the defensive spectrum.

At the risk of sounding like the mentor in a martial arts movie, perhaps the Phillies’ destiny lies somewhere unexpected. For instance: Alec Bohm, whose defense at third base has long been… let’s say “creative,” could either move to DH directly, or move over to first base and push Hoskins to DH. For that matter, Bohm’s long limbs might be better suited to the outfield anyway. Whatever the outcome, moving Bohm shifts the Phillies’ vacancy from right field to third.

Edmundo Sosa was already filling in for Bohm as a late-and-close defensive replacement, and his right-handed bat makes him a natural platoon partner for the left-handed Nick Maton, who hit .250/.341/.514 while playing six different defensive positions (including 1 1/3 innings at pitcher) last year. The Phillies would take an offensive hit by playing two middle infield-type bats at third, but the defensive upgrade over Bohm would be substantial.

As always, though, there is a catch with both players. Sosa came to the Phillies from the Cardinals, which makes sense as he’s a scrappy utility infield type, and St. Louis is the Mecca of scrappy utility infield types. But even the Cardinals couldn’t make full-time use of Sosa’s bat. At first glance, there’s a platoon hitter there; Sosa had a 101 wRC+ against lefties in 2022, and he saw plenty of action as Bryson Stott’s platoon partner in the playoffs. But Sosa couldn’t eke out even a 3% walk rate or an OBP higher than .276 against pitchers who throw with either hand. Like Hall, Sosa is a useful bench player who makes too many outs to start.

Maton is a far superior hitter, but might not remain so once the scouting report on him gets around. Last year, Maton had a .558 wOBA on fastballs, a .185 on breaking pitches, and a .217 on off-speed pitches. Guys who can play up the middle and hit fastballs that hard are always rosterable, but that’s not an ideal offensive profile for a third baseman or corner outfielder on a team with World Series aspirations.

None of the available internal replacements for Harper look likely to hold up to extended exposure to major league pitching. But consider this: Out of these six players — Vierling, Muzziotti, Sosa, Hall, Guthrie, and Maton — all except Sosa are pre-arbitration and have at least one option year left. If the Phillies, say, sunk eight figures into Cody Bellinger, that would create a ton of pressure for him to work out. Not so for this group of players. If one of them eats his spinach and turns into a legitimate starter this winter, so much the better. If not, the Phillies can cycle through their options until they find someone who works.

And they have options beyond their homegrown players, particularly because of what they can’t offer free agents: A full-time starting job. Anyone who signs on to replace Harper would be fighting for a place in the lineup for half the year, and would need to be comfortable with a part-time role afterward. And players like that, who can do a job for three months, can be had. In free agency, on the waiver wire, among spring training invites, through post-roster-crunch trades, even via the Rule 5 draft. Nobody can replace Harper in the lineup. So the Phillies should give a shot to as many players as they can.





Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

18 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Mike NMN
2 months ago

Smart piece. Every year we see some elite and expensive player suffer a major injury. You really don’t want a second expensive signing to replace him, especially when the injured star will be back at some point. So, a little creativity is needed. Maybe Brett Gardner (kidding!!!!)