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Why Bryce Harper may just stick around at first base for a long time

Harper could end up being the guy long-term at first for the Phils.

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Kansas City Royals v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

If you had “Bryce Harper replaces Rhys Hoskins as the team’s first baseman” on your 2023 Phillies Bingo card, congratulations. Go buy a Mega Millions ticket tonight.

Sitting here in early August, no one could have predicted Hoskins would tear his ACL in spring training the year before hitting free agency, or that Harper would return from his Tommy John surgery two months ahead of schedule and then learn how to play first base in the span of two months while rehabbing from that surgery. And yet, with the Phillies at 61-51 heading into a four-game series against the last place Washington Nationals this week, Harper is looking extremely comfortable at first as Rhys continues his rehabilitation.

There’s no doubt the Phils have missed Hoskins’ right-handed power and patience at the dish dearly. For all his faults, Hoskins has averaged 36 home runs over a 162 game average during his six-year career. Even last year’s .794 OPS, which was a career low, would be behind only Brandon Marsh’s .827 and Harper’s .816. But with Hoskins on the mend and getting ready to hit free agency, the Phils have some decisions to make this off-season.

Is Harper going to be their first baseman long-term, or will he return to the outfield?

Phillies team president Dave Dombrowski addressed this question with Jayson Stark and Doug Glanville on their latest “Starkville” podcast.

“Well, if you say, ‘Is it possible?’ I’d say yes,” he replied. “We have not had that conversation at all. The only thing I do know is that I asked him, a week or 10 days ago, how he likes it, and he likes it a great deal. And part of it is, you’re involved. You’re much more involved in the action on every pitch being in the infield than the outfield.”

Dombrowski went on to say, “...we’ll wait and we’ll see what ends up happening. It really makes no difference to me personally, because as long as Bryce Harper is in our lineup, I don’t care where he plays because he’s so good, you just want to get his bat in the lineup.”

Much of Harper’s future, and by consequence Hoskins’ future, is reliant on what external additions the Phils make to the lineup this off-season. While trades are always a possibility, the free agent market for first basemen and outfielders is less than robust.

First Base: Joey Votto (club option), Rhys Hoskins, Max Muncy (club option), Josh Bell (opt-out), Brandon Belt, C.J. Cron, Eric Hosmer

Outfield: Cody Bellinger, Teoscar Hernández, Michael Conforto (opt-out), Joey Gallo, Kevin Kiermaier, Joc Pederson, Jorge Soler (opt-out), Harrison Bader, Andrew McCutchen, Charlie Blackmon, Michael Brantley, Tommy Pham, Mark Canha (club option), Adam Duvall, Randal Grichuk, David Peralta, AJ Pollock, Jurickson Profar, Hunter Renfroe, Robbie Grossman, Max Kepler (club option), Wil Myers, Victor Robles (club option), Eddie Rosario (club option), Michael A. Taylor, Jesse Winker

If the Phils wanted to add a first baseman and move Harper back to right field, it’s unlikely they’d add the 39-year-old Votto, and Cron and Hosmer don’t seem worth it. Bell has been worth -0.2 fWAR, and Muncy is hitting .194, albeit with a .813 OPS (remind you of anyone?). Brandon Belt is having an outstanding season with the Blue Jays, with an .824 OPS in mostly a platoon role.

If nothing on the first base market is to their liking, they could pursue one of those outfielders mentioned above, many of whom were rumored to go to the Phillies in a trade at the deadline. It’s notable Dombrowski didn’t like any of them enough to go hard after them this summer, would he really be hot to throw a ton of money at Teoscar Hernandez, Joey Gallo, Harrison Bader, Tommy Pham, Adam Duvall, Hunter Renfroe or Randall Grichuk?

There isn’t a star in that group, so perhaps that brings Dombrowski back to our old pal, Rhys.

A lot hinges on his recovery and whether he can get back on the field at all this year. One has to wonder how GMs around the league view a 30-year-old first baseman coming off major knee surgery. Would he get a big multi-year deal, given the dearth of free agents available this off-season? Or would they be wary?

It’s making more sense for the Phils to extend a qualifying offer to Hoskins once the season is over. If a team signs him to a free agent deal, they’d receive draft compensation. If not, they’d have Hoskins back for another season, allowing to put Harper back in the outfield. It could also buy themselves a year to wait until the 2024 first base free agent class that includes Paul Goldschmidt, Pete Alonso, and Christian Walker, among others. Juan Soto and Anthony Santander become available outfielders.

The wild card to all this is Shohei Ohtani, who will be the most prized free agent ever to hit the market in just a few months. He’ll be out of the price range of the vast majority of teams, including perhaps the Phils.

But what if he isn’t?

What if the Phillies were to land him? It’s a huge if, and it almost certainly won’t happen, but in that instance, Kyle Schwarber is back in left field every day (or traded), Harper is at first, Ohtani is DH’ing and pitching every fifth day, and Hoskins is searching for a new team.

Regardless, Dombrowski can be non-committal at this point because all his options are open. Harper has proven to be an adept first baseman, which has allowed them to get Schwarber and his -14 Defensive Runs Saved out of left field.

There are a lot of moving pieces, but at the very least, Harper’s flexibility has given Dombrowski options as he decides what this roster will look like long-term.