In the first game of the three-game series against the Cleveland Guardians, Bryce Harper had finally made his triumphant return to the defensive side of the field after more than an entire calendar year off of it. The two time MVP would make his presence known from the very beginning.
On the first play of the Guardians offensive half inning, Guardians left fielder Steven Kwan hit a chopper over to Harper at first base. Harper calmly collected the ball and under hand flipped it to Ranger Suarez covering the bag, recording the out.
Two innings later, Harper would make a play that could be seen all over the internet and television for days to come. In the bottom of the third, shortstop Ahmed Rosario hit a pop up into foul territory on the first base side, Harper leaped over the fence to make a spectacular catch. For any Phillies follower of the past decade, it was likely one of the best defensive plays they had seen from their team's first baseman.
In just three innings, Harper had shown a comfortability at first base. While it is a small sample size, Harper being a solid defender at first base would be monumental for the ballclub in the final months of the season for multiple reasons.
Harper playing first base opens the designate hitting position for Kyle Schwarber. When Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos signed to the Phillies in free agency prior to the 2022 season, it was expected that one of them would be the full time DH or their would be a rotation between the two.
The already horrific defense of the Phillies had become much worse as both corner outfielders were below average defenders. Castellanos stepped up in the playoffs and had some game saving catches, but there were no gold gloves being fought over in Philadelphia's outfield.
In 2023, with Harper out due to his Tommy John surgery recovery, Schwarber was able to slot in at designated hitter. However, when Harper made his return in early May, Schwarber was once again pushed back to left field. This season Schwarber has been nothing short of one of the worst defenders in baseball. His outs above average and outfielder jump are both in the first percentile, meaning statistically he is one of the worst in the sport.
With Harper moving to first, Schwarber will now be placed in the designated hitter role. Left field will now be filled by a better defender, which the Phillies have no shortage of options for.
In Harper's first game at first base, Jake Cave started in left field. While Cave is no gold glover, compared to Schwarber, he is a large upgrade.
A better option is to put Johan Rojas in center field and move Brandon Marsh over to left field. Rojas and Marsh are both known for their above average defense and in the short amount of games they have played next to each other, the outfield defense has been drastically better.
The same could be said about Cristian Pache when he returns from injury later in the season. He could be put in center field while Marsh is put in left.
The Phillies could also look to the trade market to find a corner outfield or centerfield rental that would upgrade the defense and offense at the same time. Cody Bellinger would be able to give flexibility in the lineup, as he can play centerfield and first base at a high level.
No matter how manager Rob Thomson decides to position his outfielders down the stretch and possibly into the playoffs, one thing is for sure. With Bryce Harper at first base and Kyle Schwarber in the designated hitter position, the Phillies will have a better defense in the second half of the 2023 season. It's now on Harper to show he can stay at first base.