With each day that Bryce Harper still feels what he describes as an “achy” sensation in his right elbow, the Phillies are ever more thankful for a change to the collective bargaining agreement that they favored all along.
All hail the universal designated hitter.
The National League’s long-overdue adoption of a rule that has existed in the American League since 1973 paved the way for the Phillies to sign Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos last month and go all-in on outslugging their poor overall team defense. But the arrival of the DH this season is having a larger, unintended consequence for the Phillies: It‘s keeping Harper off the injured list.
Harper has been unable to throw without discomfort for at least two weeks. The Phillies diagnosed him with a strained flexor tendon in his right elbow. Team doctors believe it isn’t serious and will subside with rest. Just in case, everyone in the organization has crossed fingers and toes.
But because it isn’t bothering him when he swings a bat, No. 3 has been able to stay in his familiar 3-hole in the order and get on a 15-for-41 roll in 10 games, including a triple and two singles in Wednesday night’s 7-3 victory over the Colorado Rockies.
As manager Joe Girardi said the other day, “Thank God for the DH.”
The Phillies are undeniably better off with Harper than without him. But they also never planned to have one player locked into the DH spot. They set out to spread the DH at-bats around, not only between Castellanos and Schwarber but also among J.T. Realmuto, Rhys Hoskins, Harper, and others to provide periodic respite from playing defense.
Instead, Harper was the DH for a 10th consecutive game Wednesday night. He reported no improvement from when he stopped throwing on April 16 to his brief, uneasy throwing session Tuesday and another short session Wednesday. He won’t attempt to throw again until next Tuesday, according to Girardi. It seems, then, like Harper may be a DH for a while.
Not coincidentally, the Phillies are expected to keep six outfielders when rosters are reduced next week rather than taking advantage of a short-term benefit to keep a 14th pitcher.
Castellanos will keep playing right field, with Schwarber in left and Odúbel Herrera and Matt Vierling sharing time in center. Not exactly the 2003 Seattle Mariners outfield, which makes Monday’s call-up of Roman Quinn timely beyond this week.
The Phillies drafted Quinn in 2011, brought him to the majors in 2016, and gave him multiple chances over the last few years to win the center-field job. Injuries, including a ruptured Achilles tendon last May, always got in the way until the Phillies didn’t tender him a contract in the offseason.
Quinn is back now, re-signed to a minor-league contract after nearly making the Miami Marlins in spring training and called up after top prospect Bryson Stott got optioned to triple A.
Say what you want about Quinn’s luckless, star-crossed career, but he’s the Phillies’ best defensive outfielder. And although it’s unusual to carry six outfielders, Quinn has a plausible role as long as Schwarber and Castellanos are playing the corners.
If the Phillies have a lead in the late innings, especially in bigger ballparks such as New York’s Citi Field this weekend, Girardi could replace Castellanos with Quinn and still have either Herrera or Vierling on the bench. Or he could put Quinn in center field and move either Vierling or Herrera to right.
» READ MORE: Phillies send top prospect Bryson Stott to triple A
“With the DH spot, you just get a little bit more flexibility to use a guy with Roman’s unique skill set,” general manager Sam Fuld said the other day. “Now you have that luxury, at least to a greater extent, than if you’ve got at-bats to cover in the pitcher’s spot.”
There is a short-term tradeoff, though.
Because spring training lasted only three weeks, Major League Baseball and the Players Association agreed that teams could carry 28 players through May 1 rather than the usual 26. Rosters will return to normal Monday, as scheduled, but rather than capping teams at 13 pitchers, MLB and the union will allow them to keep as many as 14 through May 29.
The Phillies, like most teams, find that option appealing. As starters Ranger Suárez and particularly Zack Wheeler continue to build arm strength, it would be helpful to carry a ninth reliever, preferably a long man such as Nick Nelson or left-hander Cristopher Sánchez, for another few weeks. A 14-pitcher arrangement would comfortably allow for that.
As the Phillies are constituted, keeping Quinn as part of a four-player bench (with versatile infielder Johan Camargo, backup catcher Garrett Stubbs, and Vierling or Herrera) means forfeiting the 14th pitcher. They can still carry Nelson or Sánchez but probably not both unless it came at the expense of Andrew Bellatti, who hadn’t allowed a run until he gave up Phillies-killing Charlie Blackmon’s solo homer Tuesday night.
Regardless, it figures to affect the Phillies for only a week or two. Wheeler, who didn’t face major-league hitters in spring training, got up to 84 pitches in his last start and should be closer to 100, if not Thursday against the Rockies then in the start after that.
And a month from now, teams will have to get down to 13 pitchers anyway.
It’s a small sacrifice to keep Harper in the lineup. And if they can’t get him back in right field for a while?
“Then I’ll thank MLB for the DH,” Girardi said. “We want his bat in the lineup. And I think that’s the important thing.”