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The “Harper to 1B” experiment is going to be fascinating for this season.....and for 2024

Philadelphia Phillies v Chicago White Sox Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Team building is a difficult thing to do for anyone. Regardless of what profession you are in, getting the right mix of personalities and talent all rowing in the same direction requires a lot of foresight from the people making the decisions, those who are able to see somehow how it all will work together. As fans of the game, we try to show off what meager skills we have either through fantasy sports, OOTP simulations or MLB The Show seasons that will demonstrate to anyone within earshot that we know how to build a team. Sit down with me at a bar and I will spin yarns about my prowess at getting the Phillies that elusive third World Series in the year 2034 in OOTP by deftly managing the cap, shrewd trading and free agent acquisitions and unparalleled success in the draft.

In the real world. we watch in real time as teams develop ways they believe are proper (and cost effective) ways to lead their teams to the playoffs, World Series glory within their grasp. There is the familiar refrain amongst front office talking heads about “doing it the right way” (re: cheaply) when discussing their plans for the future. The Phillies had settled on a direction they saw fit that ultimately did lead to a World Series appearance last year, but now looks like it be an issue in the near term.

It was a noble quest by the front office.

Looking at how the Phillies approached the 2022 offseason, what with the whole lockout thing and all, it became pretty evident that they were more concerned with making sure the team had the ability to score as many runs as possible that year and in years to come. Rumors were floated about who their targets in free agency were and one just knew: defense was going to be something they were putting on the backburner. Ultimately, we saw them lock into Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos, eschewing good defense in favor of bludgeoning teams to death with their bats. Hey, they got to a World Series this way, didn’t they?

This year has been a different story. With Bryce Harper unable to make an appearance in the field as of yet thanks to Tommy John surgery, he’s been locked into the designated hitter spot, leaving Schwarber to man left field more often than the team wants him to. Castellanos has played a much better right field than I think any of us expected him to, which has been a boost for the team. When Harper does return this season, he’s expected to do so at first base and play first base only in 2023, something they can afford with Rhys Hoskins waylaid by an injury. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

Watching Harper play first base this year is going to fascinating to watch. There were probably times in his youth baseball days where he went to the spot as a break from having to pitch, catch or even play shortstop, but to do it at the major league level, in the middle of a season where expectations are heightened a bit, that will be very interesting. There are so many questions that go into his learning the position. How will his footwork be? Can he make all of the throws? Will he know what to do if a play breaks down, i.e. cutting a ball off and throwing to get the trailing runner? Will he know where to be for those cutoff throws? These are just the basics, the ones that we mere mortals think about. There are likely more detailed layers to playing the position as Wash once said.

The added layer to all of this is what the team plans to do once 2023 is over. What happens next season?

What if Harper does not really take to first base in a way that prevents the team from looking elsewhere for an option? Further, what if Harper just wants to go back to the outfield, where he came up from being drafted and remain there as long as he can? The easiest way to figure this particular problem is to simply re-sign Rhys Hoskins to a deal that covers first base and brings back their leader in the clubhouse. That move allows the team to go back to having Harper in right field, but it also puts them in position to have to put either Castellanos or Schwarber in left field, leaving one or the other to DH. Schwarber has already shown what he can do there in left, so asking Castellanos to learn a new position might actually be an upgrade at the spot, a push at worst.

Still, this solution does put the team in another awkward spot. Should Schwarber be the one to take the bulk of playing time, he’s a severely below average fielder. Harper would still be recovering from surgery and wouldn’t have played right field for over two years. There would be rust. Castellanos would either be manning the DH spot or playing a position he’s never played before, all combined with the fact that Hoskins would be returning to play first base on a knee that has been surgically reconstructed. He wasn’t exactly the most agile first baseman to begin with, so what does he look like a bit on the hobbled side?

It’s just a myriad of things that could ultimately result in some roster reconstruction headed the team’s way once this season is over. And it all stems from how the Harper at 1B experiment plays out.