The sigh of relief could be heard from Old Coachman Road in Clearwater all the way to Pattison Avenue in South Philly.
Bryce Harper took a fastball off the right ankle Friday, and for a few anxious hours, the Phillies held their collective breath. Harper nervously went for X-rays. Rhys Hoskins was so angry that he felt like brawling. John Middleton might have wondered if his shiny, new $330 million superstar came with a warranty.
But Harper’s ankle was bruised, not broken, and by Sunday, he was back in the lineup as the designated hitter. He’s scheduled to hit in a minor-league game today, work out tomorrow, and return to right field Wednesday against the Tigers at Spectrum Field.
Bullet dodged, right?
“I wish I would’ve dodged the baseball,” Harper said. “It definitely could’ve been a lot worse.”
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A week from today, the Phillies will host the Rays at Spectrum Field in the Grapefruit League finale, then fly to Philadelphia to get ready for opening day on March 28.
Until then, Harper’s at-bats will be tracked for both quantity and quality.
But there’s another spring-training storyline that commands attention. Jake Arrieta is scheduled to make two more starts in Florida in preparation for his regular-season debut, likely March 30 against the Braves, and while the results aren’t particularly important, they can’t be completely ignored, either.
It’s widely presumed that the success of the Phillies’ rotation will hinge on the continued development of Nick Pivetta, Zach Eflin, and Vince Velasquez. But a resurgence from Arrieta might be even more essential. And if Arrieta can cite his surgically repaired knee and rediscovered arm slot as reasons for optimism, it was equally worrisome to hear him lament short-arming his fastball in Saturday’s stinker against the Pirates.
If necessary, the Phillies should be able to procure a midseason upgrade at the back of the rotation, either in triple A or externally. But if Arrieta struggles, as he did down the stretch last season, general manager Matt Klentak will be in the market for a No. 2 starter, the likes of which will be much more costly.
After Arrieta’s first spring start, a nine-up, nine-down dominance of the Twins on March 3, manager Gabe Kapler explained why he believes the 33-year-old former Cy Young Award winner is due to rebound from his final nine starts last season, in which he posted a 6.35 ERA and the Phillies went 2-7.
“There’s a healthier Jake, a more motivated Jake, a more focused Jake,” Kapler said. “And it all begins with health, because health always leads to confidence. In my opinion, action and confidence leads to more motivation. So you can see that kind of snowballing.”
In that case, it couldn’t hurt Arrieta to build some momentum in his last two spring starts. At a minimum, they will bear watching.
Here’s a recap of Harper’s Sunday afternoon, plus a good day on the comeback trail for Jerad Eickhoff.
Harper appreciated Hoskins’ support, as Marcus Hayes writes.
Today: Phillies traverse Florida to face the Cardinals in Jupiter, 1:05 p.m.
Wednesday: Harper is slated to play right field vs. Tigers in Clearwater, 1:05 p.m.
March 25: Phillies wrap up spring training vs. Rays at Spectrum Field, 1:05 p.m.
March 28: Opening day vs. Braves at Citizens Bank Park, 3:05 p.m.
April 2: Harper makes his return to D.C. to face Nationals, 7:05 p.m.
It’s challenging enough for Harper to get ready for a season with a truncated spring training. But at least he won’t have to get acclimated to a new league or even a new division. The Phillies will play 21 of their first 28 games against National League East teams, and after seven seasons in Washington, Harper is familiar with many of the pitchers on those clubs.
In particular, he has had success against the Braves’ Julio Teheran (1.702 OPS, eight home runs in 52 plate appearances), Mike Foltynewicz (1.002 OPS, two homers in 28 plate appearances) and Kevin Gausman (.933 OPS, two homers in 10 plate appearances), the Nationals’ Anibal Sanchez (1.175 OPS, one homer in 18 plate appearances), and even Mets ace Jacob deGrom (1.028 OPS, two homers in 38 plate appearances).
On the flip side, Harper has struggled against the Mets’ Zack Wheeler (.574 OPS, one homer in 30 plate appearances) and Steven Matz (.703 OPS, no homers in 20 plate appearances), and the Marlins’ Dan Straily (.687 OPS, no homers in 22 plate appearances). He also hasn’t gone deep in 30 plate appearances against Mets right-hander Noah Syndergaard and 31 against Marlins lefty Wei-Yin Chen.
Question: Hi, Scott. Nice work with [Friday’s] column. You noted that there is much angst on Twitter about Vince Velasquez. I share that angst, but I am also concerned about Scott Kingery, who does not look any different to me this spring than he did last summer. And I also do not share the Phillies faith in Adam Morgan who walks too many hitters and is too prone to the long ball. I know that Morgan is out of options, but I am wondering whether James Pazos is a candidate to make the team ahead of Morgan. What are your thoughts on those players?
--Jim L., via e-mail
Answer: Thanks, Jim, for the kind words and the questions. I’ve never trusted spring training as a good time to evaluate any player, especially one as young as Kingery. I do wonder, however, how much Kingery will improve without consistent at-bats, and I’m not sure how he’ll get consistent at-bats in a lineup that features six or seven players who typically play 150-155 games per season. Barring injuries, of course, I’d say that finding playing time for Kingery will be one of Kapler’s biggest challenges.
It’s unlikely that Pazos makes the team ahead of Morgan for the exact reason that you stated. Morgan is out of options and can’t be sent to the minors without clearing waivers. In the interest of preserving depth, Morgan is the choice. But he will have to pitch well to maintain his spot, and a lefty with Pazos’ track record over the past two seasons with Seattle should push him.
Answer: Good question, Tim. Thanks for sending it along. A big reason the Phillies signed Sean Rodriguez and Trevor Plouffe to minor-league contracts is their ability to play first base, and I could see Rodriguez, in particular, being added to the 40-man roster before the season. That said, if Hoskins suffered a long-term injury, Maikel Franco could move over to first base and Kingery could play third.