The much-anticipated return of Bryce Harper is drawing nearer. Harper was evaluated by Dr. Neal ElAttrache— the surgeon who performed elbow surgery oh Harper in November— on Monday. Harper teased on Monday afternoon in an Instagram post that he was cleared to play.
Shortly after Harper took to social media, ESPN's Jeff Passan indicated that sources have confirmed that Harper has been medically cleared to return to the Phillies' lineup. He is expected to make his 2023 debut Tuesday night in the second game of the Phillies' series in Los Angeles.
Phillies manager Rob Thomson said a few weeks ago that Harper may not need a rehab assignment before returning to the Phillies' lineup. This is somewhat unusual, but at this point no news surrounding Harper's recovery should come as a surprise. Harper has been taking part in simulated games and both he and the Phillies believe that is sufficient enough work to return to the Major League roster.
Bryce Harper's return to the Phillies will spark the lineup
Injecting Harper back into the Phillies' lineup will change the dynamic of the offense from top to bottom. The Phillies' sparkplug will add an MVP caliber bat to a lineup that has already shown the ability to hit. With Harper's return, the Phillies will need to option a player on the current 26-man roster to make room for him.
Who makes the most sense to be reassigned to Triple-A Lehigh Valley? The most obvious options are Jake Cave and Kody Clemens. Both are left-handed bats and one of them will likely be the player optioned. Both have been impactful for the Phillies thus far, but neither have played well enough to secure a permanent roster spot.
Cave can play all three outfield positions. He has not played center field yet because both he and Brandon Marsh are left-handed bats and Marsh has assumed the bulk of the playing time of late. He has been hitting better after a slow start. In his last fifteen games he is hitting .245 with a home run and eight RBIs. For a bench bat, those numbers are acceptable. The problem for Cave is that when Harper returns, he will be the designated hitter. This will cause Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos to play the corner outfield positions every day, making Cave a just a bat off the bench.
Clemens has not hit a ton, but when he has, they have been big hits. Clemens has homered in three of his last four games. He can also be a left-handed bat in the lineup to play first base in the event that Alec Bohm is manning third base. His ability to play first base— a position the Phillies are crucially thin at— adds some value that Cave does not possess.
Barring another injury, the Phillies will have a tough choice to make. It is a good problem to have, especially since it means getting a former MVP in Harper back. Harper's presence in the lineup will benefit the other batters. Pitchers will be forced to be more careful with Harper which means the hitters around him in the lineup will see more pitches to hit.
Rob Thomson will have more options when it comes to creating a lineup with Harper back in the mix. One potential lineup could look like this:
1. Bryson Stott 2B
2. Trea Turner SS
3. Bryce Harper DH
4. Nick Castellanos RF
5. Kyle Schwarber LF
6. J.T. Realmuto C
7. Brandon Marsh CF
8. Alec Bohm 1B
9. Edmundo Sosa 3B
This allows Thomson to split his left-handed and right-handed bats. It is a significantly deeper lineup with Harper hitting in the top third of the order. The fact that Bohm could be a number eight hitter is a testament to that.
The speed at which Harper has been recovering demonstrates is super-human nature. He was originally given a return date close to the All-Star break. Then on Opening Day Harper was placed on the 10-day IL instead of the 60-day indicating that he was making faster progress than expected. Now that he is on the doorstep of a return just five months removed from surgery the Phillies can prepare to make another run at a "Red October".