Bryce Harper’s delayed start at first base adds layers to Phillies’ trade deadline

PHILADELPHIA — Bryce Harper has a cold. He ran a 101-degree fever Tuesday night and had lost his voice by Wednesday afternoon. But he still joined his teammates for infield practice. He did some drills while Dave Dombrowski watched from the grass in foul territory. Dombrowski had just answered questions for 15 minutes about the Phillies’ trade deadline plans. He has a vested interest in Harper making first base work.

The veteran executive tried to ask Harper a question. Harper motioned that he could not speak loudly. Whatever it was could wait.

But there is a deadline for everything, and that is why there is considerable intrigue about Harper shifting to first base. The Phillies indicated Harper could be there at some point last weekend, then bumped it to this series against Milwaukee, and now have adjusted the timing again.

Harper is still committed to trying it.

“I’m hoping this weekend,” he said Wednesday, “at least for one (game).”

The delay has added a layer of doubt. There are no indications Harper is having second thoughts about a midseason positional change that is rather unusual for a star player in his prime. Harper has immersed himself in the details of first base. Everyone is aware mistakes will be made. But there is enough evidence to convince the club’s decision-makers that Harper can do it.

“Now,” Dombrowski said, “I’m anticipating that, but that’s why I always say anticipate. Because I can’t 100 percent tell you it’s going to happen. But I’ve always felt that we would know by the trading deadline if he would be able to do it.”

This is a big deal to Dombrowski. The Phillies might not make a trade more consequential than the simple maneuver of getting Kyle Schwarber, who has rated as one of the worst defenders in the sport this season, out of left field. Harper needs to play first base to make that happen. Then, if Schwarber is the designated hitter, Dombrowski can look to better balance his lineup with a trade for a righty-hitting outfielder.

But all of this is dependent on Harper making the move.

So the Phillies are in a holding pattern. Not that they would be making trades right now regardless. The whole league is at something of a standstill while a collection of teams stuck in the middle decide whether to sell players. The Phillies might like a player on a team that is teetering toward selling.

“I think there’s a group of clubs that are pretty much saying, ‘Let’s see what happens,’” Dombrowski said. “It may go past the last weekend. That would not surprise me. So you have to be prepared for that.”

The Phillies would not want to settle for someone without waiting until closer to the Aug. 1 deadline. While there are upgrades to be made, nothing is dire. The Phillies can wait.

It’s unwise to eliminate Dombrowski from making a huge trade because he’s an opportunist who is not afraid to deal prospects to augment a contending team. But it’s also worth acknowledging that the Phillies are … a pretty good team. They entered Wednesday with the fifth-best record in the National League, and they were a mere 2 1/2 games behind the second-best team. They have played at a 93-win pace since the fifth day of the season.

So, it is reasonable for Dombrowski to just add along the edges while entertaining bigger ideas if they materialize. He wants a righty bat. He’ll seek rotation depth.

“I don’t think I’ll say any more on the trading stuff,” Dombrowski said. “I think I’ve said enough. I think I’ve tipped my hands enough on what it is. You’re never looking to trade your top prospects. But I can’t also tell you that anytime somebody drops something on your lap that you can’t say no. But I think I’ve probably said enough.”

Kyle Schwarber ranks last among left fielders in Defensive Runs Saved. (D. Ross Cameron / USA Today)

Dombrowski did not rule out a scenario in which the Phillies go with some combination of Brandon Marsh, Cristian Pache and Johan Rojas to fill left field and center field. That solution would sacrifice offense for defense. It’s probably not what Dombrowski prefers.

But, really, the biggest thing the Phillies can accomplish by the deadline is the Harper/Schwarber shuffle. Schwarber’s offensive numbers, while still potent, are not what they were a season ago. He has started all 95 games this season, with 73 of them in left field. It has affected him.

“I think so,” Dombrowski said. “He’s such a gamer and he’s never going to complain. And if you asked him, ‘how do you feel,’ he’ll say, ‘I’m great. I’m ready.’ All those types of things. But when we originally acquired him, we didn’t acquire him to be an everyday left fielder. It’s just been circumstances. … I think it will benefit him just to get him off his feet.”

Harper has been off his feet for 15 months. He wants to be in the field again. He knows how much it would benefit the team if he can play first base. But he is proud and does not want to embarrass himself. The Phillies have moved far enough along in this process to see what it looks like in a game. But, if Harper does it and does not feel comfortable, he can pull the plug. That would force the Phillies to pivot. Maybe they could find a righty-hitting first baseman while keeping Schwarber in left field.

Dombrowski is not operating as if Harper will see outfield time before the 2023 season ends.

“Maybe it will happen later on this year, I don’t know that,” Dombrowski said. “But I’m not really counting on it this year. I think for the future, yes. His arm will be able to handle it, from what the doctor says. And he’s a good outfielder. And I think he’d like to go out there and play.”

So, it’s first base or bust. Until Harper is ready, the Phillies wait. They are appreciative that Harper even entertained the idea back in April. He has worked hard toward achieving his goal. And, now, there is a lot riding on it.

(Top photo of Bryce Harper: Ross D. Franklin / Associated Press)

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