Raise your hand if you had “Bryce Harper, Phillies starting first baseman” on your 2023 Bingo card.
Yeah, I didn’t think so. And yet...
News: Bryce Harper is going to learn first base. He went to the Phillies with the idea earlier this month. It won’t change his timeline for returning as a DH. But it might get him back in the field sooner this season. The details: https://t.co/GsL3ih0MiC— Matt Gelb (@MattGelb) April 13, 2023
Harper donning a first baseman’s glove sure does look weird, but with Rhys Hoskins lost for the season with an ACL tear and the No. 2 man on the depth chart, Darick Hall, out for a couple months with a torn thumb muscle, Gelb reports Harper went to team officials urging for them to let him try out first base.
It remains to be seen whether Harper will be effective defensively at that position, but infield coach Bobby Dickerson has weeks to work with him on footwork, knowing what ground balls to pursue and which to allow the second baseman to handle, making the toss to pitchers covering first, and everything else associated with playing the position effectively.
And let’s face it, first base is not a position where defense is highly valued. Last year, only one regular first baseman graded out as a plus-defender, according to Fangraphs’ metrics.
The potential for Harper to play first base does not change how quickly he can return to the everyday lineup, however. He is still not cleared to begin a rehab assignment because doctors have not cleared him to slide. Also, Harper still cannot throw, and even though first basemen don’t need to throw as much or as hard as right fielders, first basemen must still make those throws to second for force outs and double plays as well as relay throws from the outfield.
Until his elbow is recovered enough to do that, he cannot play first base.
Also, Hall is expected to be back by the end of June, perhaps rendering this whole project moot.
Of course, if Harper can play first base, team president Dave Dombrowski could decide to get his bat at that all-important power position and pursue another big veteran outfielder/DH bat at the trade deadline to DH and alternate in the outfield with Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos. The ability for Harper to play first gives Dombrowski more options to improve the team at midseason.
It’s clear Harper’s timetable to return is much sooner than initially anticipated, and when he does first return, it’s likely he will start as the designated hitter. But once his arm is healed enough to throw from first base, and once he’s proven comfortable enough to play the position defensively, I would expect the Phils will take him up on his offer to play first base virtually every day.
It’s worth a shot, anyway.