Phillies can’t afford to start the season hobbled by their superstar's back problems

The Phillies and Bryce Harper don't sound concerned about his back stiffness. With Opening Day right around the corner, let's hope it ends up being nothing.

Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Bryce Harper is hopeful to play Friday after dealing with back stiffness
Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Bryce Harper is hopeful to play Friday after dealing with back stiffness / Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports
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The Philadelphia Phillies have almost made it through the six weeks of spring training without any significant injuries. The key parts of a roster that hopes to contend for a World Series this season have stayed relatively intact through the initial training camp and then Grapefruit League action.

Sure, there's been the odd, mild early-season issue, like Kyle Schwarber's tight groin, which kept him out of one game recently. There's also Taijuan Walker's mysterious "normal" sore knee. While it appeared to be nothing, the Phillies may not be out of the woods with that one yet.

But the most recent "minor" injury news is the scariest of the spring. Phillies superstar first baseman Bryce Harper has been out of action for the last three days — four days as of missing Monday's game. On Sunday afternoon, after the Phillies' tie with the Toronto Blue Jays, MLB.com's Todd Zolecki reported the two-time MVP has been dealing with back stiffness.

That explains why he hasn't been seen in a game since March 14, when he went 0-for-3 with a strikeout against the Boston Red Sox.

"He’s [Harper] just got a little bit of back stiffness, and we went on the road. So I backed him off," manager Rob Thomson told the media (subscription required), per The Athletic's Jayson Stark. "He’s been doing a lot of work. A lot of swings. A lot of defensive work. So he just got a little stiff. So we’re just being precautious and just back him off for a few days."

But according to Thomson, there's nothing to worry about. His concern level is, "None. Zero," per Zolecki, and he will be ready for Opening Day.

While that's reassuring, you never want to hear that the team's best hitter, one of the top talents in the league, is out of commission this close to Opening Day, which is coming fast, only 10 days away on March 28.

Thomson doubled down on his lack of concern on Monday morning, according to WIP 94's Jack Fritz, during an appearance on WIP 94 Sports Radio's Morning Show.

"I don’t have any concern [about Harper’s back]," Thomson said. "He’s going to be ready for Opening Day and he’s probably going to be playing games by the end of the week."

Phew!

Bryce Harper isn't out of the woods yet

Of all the minor and major injuries Harper has dealt with over the years, his back has been somewhat of a recurring problem, according to Pro Sports Transactions. He was kept out of the lineup last season on Aug. 11 with back spasms but was right back in the lineup the following day. He also went day-to-day on a couple of occasions in 2021 but has never spent time on the IL because of it. Before that, he had only dealt with a back issue once — that we know of — in 2015 with the Washington Nationals. He again only missed one game at that time.

There's also the notable lack of home runs this spring from Harper. He hasn't gone homerless in spring training since 2012 with the Nationals — he hit eight(!) in his last spring training in 2022. In 22 at-bats this year, he has three batted balls over 105 mph but hasn't topped 110 mph yet. What does that mean? Likely nothing, but it's interesting to note with the back stiffness.

According to Zolecki, who posted an update on Monday morning, Harper isn't concerned about the ailment. He's shut down for now but hopes to play by Friday.

Phillies can't afford to start the season with a hobbled Bryce Harper

The Phillies have repeatedly talked about wanting to get off to a strong start this year after stumbling out of the gate in the previous two campaigns. The juggernaut Atlanta Braves are poised to claim another NL East title with a projected 98 wins, per FanGraphs. The Phillies' projected win total is 85, so anything they can do to get off to a fast start to the season is crucial to keep pace early.

Last year, the team dealt with losing first baseman Rhys Hoskins during spring training and didn't have Harper in the lineup on Opening Day. They went 25-30 over the first two months and were 7.5 games back of the Braves by the end of May. The year before, in 2022, they were 22-29 on June 3 when Thomson replaced the fired Joe Girardi.

The Phillies turned things around in both seasons and went on long postseason runs. But we can all agree that it would be nice to get out to a winning start and take the pressure off early.

NBC Sports Philadelphia's Paul Hagen, who recently spoke to Charlie Manuel about the team's desired start.

"The last two years they've gotten to know each other pretty good. They've got basically the same team. So I think they have a chance to get off to a good start," Manuel told Hagen. "They get along. They've got a lot of good camaraderie. That's what I've really seen over the last two years, especially from the middle of the season on."

Manuel, at least, is confident that even if they don't get off to a good start they can repeat their results from the previous two seasons.

"But if they come out and don't get off to a good start, I think they can still have a big finish like they've done the last few years," he said, per Hagen.

This year, all the primary pieces look to be healthy and ready to go, assuming Harper's back isn't anything more than the team is letting on. That's also assuming that it improves and doesn't get any worse from here.

Like every Phillies fan, we have our fingers crossed.

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