PHILADELPHIA – Bryce Harper powered his way through a postseason with crucial homers and big base hits that carried the Philadelphia Phillies from the last NL wild-card spot all the way to the World Series.
How much better might Harper have been without a torn ligament in his elbow?
Harper at last will have surgery next week to address the tear in the ulnar collateral ligament of his right elbow that forced the outfielder to spend the bulk of this season as designated hitter.
The Phillies knew surgery was on the table once Harper suffered the small tear in April, and their surprising postseason run only delayed the inevitable. It was a tradeoff the NL champion Phillies would take, of course, but the possibility looms large that Harper might not be ready for opening day on March 30 at Texas.
Phillies President Dave Dombrowski said Wednesday there was no timetable on Harper’s recovery until after the surgery, which is scheduled for Nov. 23.
“We have no prognosis, really, until he goes into the elbow and takes a look at it,” Dombrowski said of the surgeon. “We’ll have something at that time with the surgery and the anticipation something will happen. I would think it will slow him down for the season. We’ll know more next week.”
There are options: Harper could need Tommy John surgery (where a healthy tendon is used to replace a torn ligament) or he could face an easier repair of the existing ulnar collateral ligament. That won't be known until he goes under the knife.
While pitchers can miss up to 18 months or worse with Tommy John surgery, hitters can make a more rapid return because they don't have to throw. Still, recovery is needed and surgery could knock out Harper at least to the halfway point of the season. If it's a repair, Harper might not miss much more than the first weeks of next season.
Harper last played right field at Miami on April 16. He had a platelet-rich plasma injection in his elbow in May and shifted to the designated hitter role. Harper met Monday with prominent orthopedist Dr. Neal ElAttrache, who determined the tear did not heal on its own, necessitating surgery.
“We always knew that was a possibility,” Dombrowski said. “We've known that for months.”
The elbow injury did little to slow Harper's offense. The 30-year-old led the Phillies to their first World Series since 2009, where they lost in six games to Houston.
In late June, Harper suffered a broken thumb when he was hit by a pitch and was sidelined for two months. He still hit .286 with 18 home runs and 65 RBIs for the season. He was named NLCS MVP and hit six home runs overall in the playoffs.
Harper left Washington and signed a 13-year, $330 million free-agent contract with the Phillies in 2019 and won the NL MVP award in 2021. A seven-time All-Star, Harper was the NL MVP with the Nationals in 2015 and has 285 career home runs.
Dombrowski said Harper's availability for the early part of next season may not necessarily affect his decision-making in the offseason. Nick Castellanos and Kyle Schwarber could DH, and so could J.T Realmuto if he needs a break at catcher.
“You don’t ever want to lose Bryce, you really don’t,” Phillies manager Rob Thomson said. “He's one of the best hitters in baseball, if not the best. We spent a lot of time last year without him. Guys responded. It gave opportunities to other people to step up and they did. While we will be missing him, and looking forward to getting him back, it’ll give somebody else an opportunity.”
The Phillies already have shed $75 million in payroll and could spend that cash on free-agent star shortstops such as Trea Turner, Xander Bogaerts, Dansby Swanson and Carlos Correa.
Dombrowski and Thomson both tiptoed around their interest in the shortstops and insisted they would be fine with Edmundo Sosa playing there and Bryson Stott moving to second base. But the Phillies have spent each of the last several offseasons making big-money splashes, and this winter figures as no exception.
The Phillies' $243 million was the fourth-richest in baseball and they owed $2.6 million in luxury tax penalties for exceeding the $230 million threshold. The threshold bumps to $233 million this season.
“You really would rather not be penalized, but I think we’re open-minded to having the best club we possibly can and see where it takes us,” Dombrowski said. “We’re going to push the needle to try to win. We’re close, right? We also want to be good for years to come, too. I don’t want it to look like we’re just going to sacrifice everything."
Whatever the lineup looks like next season, the Phillies know they need a healthy Harper in there — eventually.
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