Could Harper be back even earlier than expected?

Hall may fill designated hitter void while Phillies' star recovers

November 28th, 2022

This story was excerpted from Todd Zolecki’s Phillies Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

Just before dinnertime Wednesday, word broke that Bryce Harper had Tommy John surgery to repair the torn UCL in his right elbow.

The Phillies said in a statement that they expect Harper to DH again by the All-Star break. But there is real optimism that he returns before that. Harper, who projects to be back in right field before the end of the 2023 season, could begin swinging a bat again in as little as four months. He could begin hitting competitively in May, which essentially would mark the beginning of his Spring Training.

How many plate appearances would he need before he is ready to rejoin the Phillies’ lineup? Everything depends on how he feels, of course. But for this exercise, let’s assume that Harper heals well and feels fine.

He got 37 plate appearances this spring following the lockout.

He got 44 in the spring of 2021.

He got 27 in the spring of 2019.

He averaged 60.3 in his final six springs with the Nationals from 2013-18.

So much of Harper’s estimated timeline has been based on Shohei Ohtani’s recovery from Tommy John surgery. Ohtani had surgery on Oct. 1, 2018, and he returned to DH for the Angels on May 7, 2019. Ohtani never went on a rehab assignment. He started hitting against a pitching machine on April 12 then started facing pitchers in simulated games on April 24.

Ohtani got about 50 plate appearances before the Angels activated him.

That’s 26 days from hitting off a pitching machine to DHing for the Angels.

Again, for this exercise only, let’s say Harper begins hitting competitively on May 15. Twenty-six days after that is June 9, when the Phillies open a weekend series against the Dodgers at Citizens Bank Park.

That would be four or five weeks earlier than the Phillies’ estimate.

Is it possible? Sure. Will it happen? We will find out.

In the meantime, the Phillies will need a new DH. A lot of fans are wondering whether Philadelphia will find somebody externally to fill the void. The best bet is they do not -- at least not somebody who costs a lot. Remember, Phillies president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski could have acquired a corner outfielder or DH last summer, when Harper broke his left thumb in San Diego. Dombrowski didn’t think that made sense.

“After a couple days, I didn’t have anybody say he wasn’t coming back,” Dombrowski said last month. “So that was a big influence. And then when [Harper] came back, he’d be the DH. We already had [Kyle] Schwarber and [Nick] Castellanos, so what are you going to do? We just thought, OK, we’ll just mix and match and see how guys did.”

Dombrowski’s instincts proved correct. The Phillies went 32-20 (.615) while Harper recovered from thumb surgery.

Five players DH’d in the 52 games Harper missed:

• Darick Hall, 30 times
• Schwarber, nine times
• Castellanos, five times
• Rhys Hoskins, four times
• Alec Bohm, four times

Hall could be the guy again. He batted .264 with nine home runs, 16 RBIs and an .847 OPS in 135 plate appearances from his big league debut on June 29 through Aug. 21, when they optioned him to Triple-A Lehigh Valley.

It makes more sense for the Phillies to focus their efforts on Trea Turner, Carlos Correa, Xander Bogaerts or Dansby Swanson at shortstop.

That would offset Harper’s absence more than anything.