Bryce Harper makes his much-anticipated debut at first base Friday night in the Phillies' series opener in Cleveland.
Harper bats fourth and starts at first base for the first time at any level. He has been working out regularly at the position since April and has checked off every box. Being cleared to throw was the final component.
The Phillies do not expect Harper to return to the outfield this season. There are more touch throws associated with first base as opposed to the outfield where you're typically airing it out when you have to throw. He hasn't played right field since suffering an elbow injury in the ninth game of the 2022 season that eventually required Tommy John surgery this past November.
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Harper's transition to first base is important for the Phillies on multiple levels. It allows them to use Kyle Schwarber as the designated hitter. That's where Schwarber starts Friday night. Schwarber was originally signed with the idea of being rotated at DH with Nick Castellanos. Nine games into the Phillies tenure of both players, Harper's injury changed the plan and it's been that way for the last year and a half.
Schwarber has graded out as the worst defensive player in baseball this season, so it's a welcome upgrade going from Schwarber in left field to Jake Cave or Brandon Marsh. Cave got the start Friday night after being called up from Triple A. When he doesn't start, the Phillies can use Johan Rojas in center with Marsh in left.
The Phillies recalled Cave and activated Josh Harrison (wrist) from the injured list, optioning Darick Hall and Drew Ellis to Triple A.
Cave, who lit it up at Triple A in 275 plate appearances — .346/.429/.684 with 30 doubles, 16 homers and 49 RBI — actually made his first professional start at first base Thursday night for the IronPigs. The Phillies are trying to increase his versatility and their own internal options.
Hall just didn't hit enough, going 1-for-17 with a single, no walks and 10 strikeouts since the All-Star break. He also committed a couple of errors at first base on relatively routine plays.
President of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski confirmed the obvious earlier this week: How Harper adjusts at first base will determine the Phillies' trade deadline path. If Harper can stick at first base, where manager Rob Thomson has cautioned there will be bumps in the road, the Phillies can explore the trade market for a right-handed-hitting corner outfielder.
They'd have to find someone they feel can be more productive than a defensive-minded outfield of Marsh and Rojas, or eventually Marsh and Cristian Pache, who is mending from elbow surgery to remove a screw that shouldn't sideline him long.
The options are not plentiful. Randal Grichuk's name has been out there since the season began because the Rockies are terrible and one of the few clear sellers. A groin injury has kept him out of the outfield since the first game after the All-Star break, but he did return to action as the Rockies' DH Friday night. Grichuk has hit just .222 with a sub-.700 OPS the last two seasons away from Coors Field.
The White Sox have many players to potentially sell off. First baseman/corner outfielder Andrew Vaughn does not seem like one of their prime candidates because he's only 25 and making $760,000 before his first of three arbitration years, but he would fit the description of the sort of bat the Phillies could use. He has not played the outfield at all in 2023 and is not a strong defender but did start 40 games in left and 39 in right for the White Sox a year ago.
The Mets have Tommy Pham and Mark Canha, two players who would make sense to trade if things don't change in the standings between now and the August 1 deadline. The Mets enter the weekend six games under .500 and seven back of the Phillies for the final wild-card spot, with four teams in between. Their course of action seems rather straightforward but they may wait to make deals until the final days.
Pham is having his best season since 2019, hitting .272/.356/.475 with 15 doubles, nine homers and 11 stolen bases. A right-handed hitter with plate selection and occasional pop, he has the skill set the Phillies would be looking for. He's on a one-year, $6 million contract that expires after the season.
Canha has not been quite as productive but can be relied upon to get on base. He has a .370 OBP the last five seasons. He, too, is a free agent after the season.
Friday night's Phillies-Guardians game will serve as the first real indicator of whether the Harper-at-first plan is feasible the rest of the season. He will not play there every day right away. It could be one start at first base, two at DH, another start at first base, one at DH before he does back-to-back games.
The Phillies have 10 games left before the deadline and Dombrowski is confident that will be enough time to make the all-important determination.
"Part of what we need is based upon what happens with Bryce," Dombrowski said Wednesday. "Because if Bryce can move to first base, it allows us to free up the DH spot and put Kyle there a little bit more, and then we have the ability to decide what we want to do in left field — or the outfield, period.
"I think really what we're looking for is somebody that can swing the bat from the right-hand side, but not just any position either. I keep a little open-mindedness to that because there's some different type of thought processes that we have. Maybe Rojas, maybe you end up playing the defense over the offense at that particular time. Maybe we don't go outside the organization.
"Maybe we decide … I do think Pache will be back relatively soon, so that puts us in another position to get a right-handed bat out there that was swinging it very well. Let's see how Rojas does. There's no question he's outstanding defensively, so he's going to add to you in that regard with his speed. Maybe we don't do anything in that regard."