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Young players who must meet Bryce Harper’s challenge with the Phillies in 2022

Harper wants the Phillies’ young players to step up. Here are some of the ones he’s talking about.

Which version of Alec Bohm is the real one, the 2020 NL Rookie of the Year runner-up or the one who slumped to .247/.305/.342 in 2021?
Which version of Alec Bohm is the real one, the 2020 NL Rookie of the Year runner-up or the one who slumped to .247/.305/.342 in 2021?Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

If we’re being honest about the Phillies, let’s start here: They weren’t ready for Bryce Harper.

A 37-36 finish in 2017, a 64-49 start under Gabe Kapler in 2018, and the emergence of Aaron Nola and Rhys Hoskins into homegrown centerpieces conspired to convince owner John Middleton that the rebuilding project was nearing completion. So the Phillies pulled off a win-now trade for J.T. Realmuto on Feb. 7, 2019, and signed Harper 21 days later to the richest free-agent contract in baseball history, a signal that they expected to contend.

But they had neither a cavalcade of top prospects coming behind Nola and Hoskins nor the infrastructure of a winning organization. They hadn’t drafted well in years, and the development arcs of their best young players tended to flatten out in triple A or slope downward in the majors.

» READ MORE: Ten years, no playoffs: Can the Phillies get back in 2022?

Concluding in 2019 that the Phillies were playoff-ready was like running 10 miles and declaring you’re fit for a marathon.

The Phillies are 191-193 in three seasons with Harper, even though his .958 on-base-plus-slugging trails only Mike Trout (1.062), Juan Soto (1.001), and Fernando Tatis Jr. (.965) among players with 900 plate appearances since 2019. Seeing Harper put up MVP-worthy numbers is more entertaining than, say, watching Nick Williams in right field. There just hasn’t been a postseason payoff.

To Harper’s credit, he remains committed to winning here. But after the season ended Sunday in Miami, he hit on the crux of a problem that existed before he arrived and could linger for years to come.

“We need our minor leagues to be better,” he said. “We need guys to come up from the minor leagues and be successful, not have to go up and down.”

Since Harper brought it up, let’s shine a spotlight on four players in particular:

Alec Bohm

The Phillies would live with Bohm’s below-average defense at third base as long as he hits. And manager Joe Girardi said the Phillies still believe he will hit “because we’ve seen him do it.”

Indeed, Bohm slashed .338/.400/.481 last year. But his pandemic-shortened rookie season consisted of 180 plate appearances over six weeks. In that context, his second-year nosedive (.247/.305/.342 in 417 plate appearances) was more like a midseason slump for a typical rookie.

“Sometimes we can make a lot of it when a young player comes up, has success, and then goes through a hard time,” said Girardi, who notably benched Bohm in August for veteran utilityman Ronald Torreyes, a move that led to Bohm’s demotion to triple A. “But it’s actually pretty common. We’ve seen in our division, there’s a guy that’s going to the playoffs, a third baseman that came up and lit the world on fire, and then he really struggled. And now people chant ‘M-V-P.’”

» READ MORE: Bryce Harper challenges young players to help end the Phillies’ playoff drought

Girardi was referring to Atlanta’s Austin Riley, who will get MVP votes after hitting .303 with 33 homers and an .898 OPS. Entering this season, though, Riley slashed .232/.288/.448 with 18 doubles, 26 homers, 76 RBIs, 32 walks, and 157 strikeouts in 503 plate appearances.

Bohm’s numbers through 597 major-league plate appearances: .274/.333/.383, 26 doubles, 11 homers, 70 RBIs, 47 walks, and 147 strikeouts.

So the Phillies hope Bohm will keep following Riley’s path. But it’s also fair to doubt a 25-year-old whose body language and habit of taking his frustrations from the plate into the field got so bad that he wound up back in the minors.

“Bohmer needs to figure out this offseason what he wants to be and how he wants to do it,” Harper said. “And we need him to be a big piece of this club next year as our starting third baseman.”

Matt Vierling

The season’s biggest player-development success story for the Phillies, at least among position players, was also an indictment of the farm system.

Vierling, 25, got called up on Aug. 31 because of his versatility. But the natural outfielder began playing first and third base only because he talked the Phillies into giving him a look on the infield during the Florida instructional league last fall.

“It was speaking up and saying I can play infield and kind of convincing them to put me there, and they finally did,” said Vierling, who started 13 of 31 games down the stretch, including six at first base. “I’m just proud that I did that because now I’m in a good spot.”

» READ MORE: Phillies fire hitting coach Joe Dillon, infield coach Juan Castro before season finale

Vierling also worked with a private hitting coach after the 2019 season to help undo the bad habits caused when a former Phillies minor-league instructor adjusted his stance and swing in an attempt to generate more power. He took those changes into this season and hit .345 in 24 games for double A Reading before making his major-league debut in June. In 77 plate appearances, he batted .324 with two homers and an .843 OPS.

A case could be made that Girardi should have played Vierling more. Depending on how the Phillies choose to fill their myriad needs, they could opt for a platoon in either left field or center. If that’s the case, Vierling should get a chance in spring training to be the righty-hitting side of that formula.

Mickey Moniak

Moniak never played in triple A before this year, so it seemed reasonable that the Phillies decided he would open the season in the minors. Little else about how they handled the former first overall pick made sense.

The Phillies called up Moniak in mid-April after Adam Haseley left the team for personal reasons. But they gave him only nine games, in which he went 3-for-25 with 12 strikeouts, to seize the center-field job before promoting veteran Odúbel Herrera.

Moniak was called up four other times but made only nine more plate appearances, turning his time in the big leagues into little more than interruptions in his development at triple A. Perhaps it explains a season of extreme highs (.358 average and 1.063 from June 29 to July 24) and profound lows (.203 average and .543 OPS from Aug. 14 to Sept. 8). He batted .238 with 15 homers and a .748 OPS in 409 plate appearances overall for Lehigh Valley.

The Phillies should know by now if Moniak can help them at the major-league level as the lefty-hitting half of an outfield platoon or even a bat off the bench. Instead, the 23-year-old may need more time to develop before they have a definitive answer.

Bryson Stott

In spring training, Harper said Stott’s left-handed swing reminds him of Garret Anderson, a .293 hitter with 287 home runs in a 17-year major-league career.

How’s that for a bullish scouting report?

OK, so Harper is biased. He and Stott are family friends who watch college football together every Saturday back home in Las Vegas. They were roommates in spring training and hung out on mutual days off during the season. Stott may have no bigger ally in the organization than Harper.

But the young shortstop and 2019 first-round pick put together a season that gives the Phillies optimism. He batted .299 with 26 doubles, 16 homers, and an .876 OPS between three levels. After getting promoted to triple A two weeks ago, he went 10-for-33 (.303) with one homer in 10 games.

» READ MORE: Joe Girardi says Phillies still see Alec Bohm as a third baseman

Stott, who turns 24 on Wednesday, will play in the Arizona Fall League and figures to open next season at Lehigh Valley but could push for a call-up with a strong first half. It’s unclear whether he will remain at shortstop, with one rival scout suggesting that his range may eventually force a move to second base. Another scout said the prevalence of shifts in today’s game may enable Stott to stay put.

Regardless, Harper figures to keep him motivated all winter.

“If Bryson is here next year, possibly sticking him somewhere, wherever that may be, he needs to come up and do his job,” Harper said. “We need him to be the best player he can be.”