In the global spectrum of professional sports, the UCI World Tour and Major League Baseball are in fact, not as different as they may seem. Sure, the two organizations operate largely in different hemispheres – Eastern and Western – as well as in different sports, cycling and baseball, respectively, but other than that, both have a surprising amount of similarities. Both are the largest and most vaunted of their respective disciplines, offering the highest level of competition – and therefore the highest level of viewership – in their sports. Both the UCI and MLB are legally-backed organizations striving to move past a shared history of rampant doping amongst their athletes. Consequently, both have seen the heroes of their respective sports turn into villains – Lance Armstrong and Barry Bonds – vilified remnants of a mottled past. Most importantly, however, both organizations are comprised of teams, all competing for a chance at glory, 18 in the UCI and 30 in MLB.
This is significant, however, because although cycling features individual winners of each race, a rider is only as good as his team. UAE Team Emirates found this out in the worst of ways at this year’s Tour de France, when their 24-year-old superstar Tadej Pogacar, winner of the previous two iterations of the race, faltered due to a lack of support in the mountainous stages. This off-season, UAE has gone at lengths to right those wrongs, siphoning off young talent from other competitive teams.
The Philadelphia Phillies, after a disappointing finish to a revelatory World Series run, are in a similar position this winter. They have their own Pogacar, the sport’s most dominant force, in Bryce Harper. They’ve seen what happens when they don’t support him – a National League MVP trophy for Harper and another season without a playoff berth in 2021 – as well as what happens when they do, like in 2022.
But what happens when Harper isn’t there? For the first time in his five years with the team, Harper is entering a season with the expectation of missing significant time. What should the Phillies, with money to spend and roster holes to fill, do this off-season in lieu of their superstar’s steadying presence?
Progress as expected. Although it sounds like the easy and obvious answer, it’s the correct one. On Wednesday, Harper will undergo surgery to repair the injured Ulnar Collateral Ligament in his right elbow. While Dave Dombrowski and the Phillies have declined to provide the details on Harper’s surgery or an exact timeline for a return – stating that they won’t know until the surgeon has a real time look into Harper’s elbow – the prognosis is grim: Harper will assuredly miss at least the first month of the regular season, most likely significantly more.
Harper’s surgeon, Dr. Neal ElAttrache, has two options: a full reconstruction of the UCL – Tommy John surgery – or merely a surgical repair of the existing ligament with an internal brace. Although the Phillies are hoping that Harper’s procedure will be the latter, which Rhys Hoskins underwent in October 2020 and boasts a shorter recovery time than traditional UCL reconstruction surgery – 4-6 months as opposed to 12 – the limited evidence suggests that he may very well be having Tommy John surgery. First, the veiled language the team has been using to speak on Harper’s injury, which occurred on April 11th, points to a more significant injury than the team would like to disclose. Although Dr. ElAttrache may very well not be able to determine what kind of surgery Harper needs until he’s examining the elbow, an MRI clearly pointed to a tear in Harper’s UCL – the question is how torn is it? An internal brace surgery cuts down on the recovery time because it avoids the process of ligamentization – the transformation of a donor tendon into a healthy UCL – by simply banding together the pre-existing torn UCL. However, internal brace procedures are ideal for younger throwing athletes (adolescence, 20s) with acute-onset tears (less than 3 months prior) that occurred at the origin or insertion of the UCL. At age 30, Harper is neither a younger throwing athlete nor did he have an acute on-set tear of the ligament – his elbow injury dates back to over 7 months ago and has not improved with rehab.
Outlook for the off-season
Regardless of which surgery Harper undergoes, he’ll miss Spring Training and won’t return to the lineup in a DH role until at least some point in June, perhaps even late July. The question then becomes how significant of an effect should this have on the Phillies off-season plans?
Not course-altering. After all, Harper isn’t expected to miss the entirety of the 2023 season. While his extended absence to open the 2023 season is something the Phillies have never dealt with, they went 32-20 over the 52 games Harper missed while being out with a broken thumb this past summer. They are, at least on paper, capable of winning without their best player.
Besides, they still have other holes to fill, the first and most prominent being on the left-side of the infield at shortstop. Harper’s absence at the top of the lineup likely won’t have an effect of who they choose or what style of hitter – power vs contact, top vs middle – the team chooses to place into the lineup.
Starting pitching is just as big a hole – with only three of the five rotation spots solidified, the team must find a way to replace the 53 starts that came from free-agents Kyle Gibson, Noah Syndergaard, and Zach Eflin. Even with the potential Spring-Training addition of a prospect such as Andrew Painter, for which Dombrowski stated he’d leave a rotation spot open, the team will need to add free-agent arms. Additionally, the Phillies must bolster their bullpen by finding a way to replace 23 saves from free-agents Corey Knebel, Dave Robertson, and Brad Hand.
While Harper’s bat will be missed, searching for his replacement isn’t likely to be high on the team’s list of priorities this off-season. Because of the backlog of poor-fielding power-hitters on the roster, Harper’s absence actually gives the Phillies more flexibility with their lineups. In the outfield, Nick Castellanos and Kyle Schwarber could rotate in the DH spot with Matt Vierling, Brandon Marsh, or even Nick Maton taking their place in right or left field. In the infield, Rhys Hoskins could slide to the DH spot, allowing Alec Bohm to take a few games at first base, or JT Realmuto could spend some time there to give him some time off from catching. First baseman Darick Hall could also see time at DH against right-handed pitching. While these aren’t stellar options, they do provide the team with some defensive flexibility, allowing the Castellanos and Schwarber signings to play out as originally intended.
The market only really takes an interesting turn if the Phillies were to make a trade, specifically of Rhys Hoskins. Although Hoskins is one of the team’s few homegrown talents and is responsible for some of the most epic home runs in recent postseason history, he has proven time and time again to not be a “winning” player. His streakiness at the plate belies the notion of what consistency even is and his ineffectual defense has proven detrimental to the team time and time again. Moving Hoskins would A. either open the door for a free agent addition such as Jose Abreu or Josh Bell or B. pave the way for an additional outfield bat by sliding Schwarber or Castellanos to first base.
An addition of a premium free-agent outfield bat, like Japan’s Masataka Yoshida, would only be possible upon the implementation of option B, and even then feels like a stretch. Although the Japanese star is obsessed with Harper, it’s hard to see the Phillies spending significant money on another free-agent outfielder when they already have Castellanos, Schwarber, Harper, and Marsh on the roster. Look instead for them to opt for a bench bat such as Kevin Pillar, Adam Duvall, or even Cody Bellinger if they try to “replace” Harper in free-agency.
Featured Image: Kyle Ross / USA Today