Schwarber, Nick, and Pray for Stick

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Today is the day that Bryce Harper reports to spring training. While it’s certainly fun to anticipate 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, taking swings without hitting a baseball, and his return to the active roster isn’t expected until sometime around the All-Star break. Defense will wait even longer, with Harper not expected to really be ready to play the field until the end of the regular season. That will mean many simultaneous servings of Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos in the outfield, something the FDA would surely stridently oppose if asked for an opinion.

The Phillies did some good things this offseason. By far the team’s biggest move was signing former Dodgers shortstop Trea Turner to a monster deal totaling $300 million over 11 years. I was a fan of the signing because it recognized that despite finishing 2022 just two wins short of a World Series title, the Phillies were also a third-place team that finished 14 games behind its divisional competition. With no expectation of a collapse from the Braves or the Mets, it was important to aggressively improve the roster where possible. Signing Turner allows incumbent shortstop Bryson Stott to slide into Jean Segura’s vacated role at second base, upgrading both positions.

But I haven’t been a fan of how the Phillies have managed 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 currently constituted, the team’s outfield depth, which is basically Jake Cave and Josh Harrison, would have a great deal of trouble even replacing Brandon Marsh, let alone the 2021 MVP. Dalton Guthrie and Símon Muzziotti are unlikely to be answers either; not a single projection system housed here at the site has either of them with even 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 perplexing or maddening, depending on whether you root for the Phils.

The team has yet to commit to a DH plan, at least publicly, and it appears likely that players will rotate through the position to keep them fresh. But rotating isn’t the same thing as replacing since that same motley crew of backups will play other positions when they aren’t DHing. None of the reserves/minor leaguers named above or Edmundo Sosa is likely to be even replacement level at designated hitter. The closest thing the Phillies have to a viable offensive option is Darick Hall, who showed power in his brief 2023 stint, but also poor plate discipline and a meager contact rate. ZiPS is easily the most optimistic of the FanGraphs projection systems here and even it only pegs Hall for 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 may be the least damaging in-house solution.

In terms of projected wins, the Phillies are right in that band where adding a win is the most valuable. Win number 110 or 60 has basically no effect on a team’s playoff fate, but wins number 86 and 87 certainly do. A four-win player (Harper’s projection) losing half a season is two wins. Two wins is about what acquiring an MVP candidate at the trade deadline will get you, something teams give up significant value to do. So how big a deal is Philadelphia’s curiously lax approach? Let’s start with the ZiPS projection, which currently assume 75 games for Harper. Here are the updated projected standings with that assumption:

ZiPS Mean Projected Standings – NL East
Team W L GB Pct Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win%
Atlanta Braves 94 68 .580 47.1% 39.6% 86.6% 12.1%
New York Mets 94 68 .580 42.6% 42.1% 84.6% 11.0%
Philadelphia Phillies 85 77 9 .525 9.8% 37.5% 47.2% 2.6%
Miami Marlins 75 87 19 .463 0.6% 7.0% 7.6% 0.1%
Washington Nationals 65 97 29 .401 0.0% 0.2% 0.2% 0.0%

That’s similar to the projection I ran a few weeks ago — not much has changed — and leaves the Phillies as essentially a coin flip to make the playoffs, with a real chance to upset and win the division, though they’d need a number of dice to roll their way. Now, here are the same projections, but with a few different totals for the number of games Harper is able to play at DH. The first column is the default 75-game projection from above:

ZiPS NL East Playoff Probs by Bryce Harper Games Played
Team Div% 0 18 36 54 72 90 108 126 144 162
Atlanta 47.1% 48.9% 48.7% 48.3% 47.7% 47.2% 46.7% 46.1% 45.5% 44.8% 44.0%
New York 42.6% 44.4% 44.0% 43.4% 43.1% 42.6% 42.0% 41.6% 41.1% 40.4% 39.7%
Philadelphia 9.8% 5.9% 6.7% 7.6% 8.6% 9.5% 10.7% 11.7% 12.9% 14.3% 15.8%
Miami 0.6% 0.7% 0.7% 0.7% 0.6% 0.6% 0.6% 0.5% 0.5% 0.5% 0.5%
Washington 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%
Team Playoff% 0 18 36 54 72 90 108 126 144 162
Atlanta 86.6% 88.0% 87.7% 87.4% 87.1% 86.7% 86.5% 86.1% 85.8% 85.4% 85.1%
New York 84.6% 86.1% 85.8% 85.5% 85.0% 84.7% 84.3% 84.0% 83.6% 83.3% 82.9%
Philadelphia 47.2% 36.9% 39.3% 41.7% 44.1% 46.7% 49.4% 51.9% 54.5% 57.1% 59.6%
Miami 7.6% 8.5% 8.2% 8.1% 7.9% 7.6% 7.4% 7.1% 6.9% 6.8% 6.6%
Washington 0.2% 0.2% 0.2% 0.2% 0.2% 0.2% 0.2% 0.2% 0.2% 0.2% 0.1%
Team WS Win% 0 18 36 54 72 90 108 126 144 162
Atlanta 12.1% 12.6% 12.5% 12.4% 12.3% 12.2% 12.0% 11.9% 11.8% 11.6% 11.5%
New York 11.0% 11.5% 11.4% 11.3% 11.2% 11.0% 10.9% 10.8% 10.7% 10.6% 10.4%
Philadelphia 2.6% 1.6% 1.8% 2.0% 2.3% 2.6% 2.9% 3.2% 3.5% 3.9% 4.3%
Miami 0.1% 0.2% 0.2% 0.1% 0.1% 0.1% 0.1% 0.1% 0.1% 0.1% 0.1%
Washington 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%

In the worst case scenario, where something goes wrong with Harper’s rehab and he misses the season, ZiPS estimates that the Phillies would lose 10.3 percentage points of playoff probability. To put that in context, when I did a similar exercise last year with everyone in the National League as of late June, only Corbin Burnes had more of an effect on his team’s playoff chances. Indeed, of the million simulations of the 2022 season I ran, 40% of the ones that saw the Phillies pull a Rocky II and make the second time the charm would have disappeared into the aether if Harper had failed to return.

At the time of Harper’s surgery, the Phillies had myriad options, even if you ignore the unrealistic ones (like signing Aaron Judge or tricking someone into picking up Castellanos’ contract) or the fun, ambitious ones (like signing Brandon Nimmo out from under the Mets’ noses and playing him in right, then shifting him to center when Harper returned). Brandon Drury at DH projects as a superior option to any of the Phillies reserves and would have been a better flex option than Harrison. Wil Myers signed a one-year deal with the Reds for relative peanuts. Trey Mancini’s two-year, $16 million deal was costlier (macadamia nuts?), but he’s both a better hitter and would provide an emergency option if Rhys Hoskins leaves after 2023. Even the most pessimistic projection for J.D. Martinez (Steamer’s in this case) forecasts him for a 111 wRC+, and he signed with the Dodgers for one year and $10 million. Jurickson Profar remains a free agent; he could pick up DH reps against lefties and provide supersub value elsewhere the rest of the time. Given Harper’s likely eventual return, the Phillies might not have been the front-runners for all of those 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 they make the playoffs are generally those where they exceed their projections. Digging through a million sims, 87 wins only got a team the third Wild Card spot half the time, with the over/under to grab the NL East the highest in baseball at 98.4 wins.

ZiPS Playoff Table – 2023 National League
To Win 10% 20% 30% 40% 50% 60% 70% 80% 90%
NL East 91.1 93.5 95.4 96.9 98.4 100.0 101.5 103.5 106.1
NL Central 84.8 87.2 89.1 90.8 92.3 93.9 95.6 97.8 100.7
NL West 89.4 91.7 93.3 94.8 96.2 97.5 99.1 100.8 103.4
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 to change course at this point, it would likely need to involve a trade. Now, I certainly wouldn’t send Andrew Painter or Mick Abel out of town for a bat, but is there anyone else in the system who is really untouchable in exchange for some high-leverage wins? ZiPS had the organization with two prospects between no. 101 and no. 200 on its Top 100 (Griff McGarry at no. 106) and Hao-Yu Lee at no. 158), and I can’t imagine hanging onto them if the right trade opportunity became available.

In the quest to finish last year’s unfinished business, the Phillies lost one of the league’s most valuable players and chose not to really replace him. Phils fans better hope that Harper is as good at healing at he is at crushing fastballs a mile. If not, the team’s lax approach may prove fatal to its playoff hopes.

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
NATS Fanmember
18 days ago

Sign Profar? Profar would move Castellanos to DH. Profar in Lf and Schwarber in Rf. Turner could play CF if Marsh gets hurt. he did a few years ago for a season. Profar is not a great defender, but he is better than Castellanos.

Profar hit 110 wRC last season. that’s pretty solid. He might be cheaper now than he was a few months ago and might be more open to a short deal that gets him to free agency next season.

Last edited 18 days ago by NATS Fan
18 days ago
Reply to  NATS Fan

Profar is a good idea for the Phillies. If they go that route, he should go in right over Schwarber though. Neither of them can really move out there, but Profar at least has the arm for right

17 days ago
Reply to  proiste

Schwarber has an arm; he was a catcher and has done OK in the assist department

18 days ago
Reply to  NATS Fan

Profar projects to about 103 wRC+

Darick Hall, already on the roster, also projects to 103 wRC+

This is a non-solution to a non-problem.