Phillies say they’re not concerned, but Bryce Harper’s bothersome back is worth watching

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Here’s the first rule of covering spring training: Don’t just notice what’s happening. Notice what’s not happening.

Here’s the second rule of covering spring training: Don’t just pay attention to who’s playing. Pay attention to who’s not playing.

So now that we have that out of the way, here’s a “story” that caught the attention of those of us who were paying attention to the Phillies’ lineup card Sunday. …

Who wasn’t playing? That would be a guy named Bryce Harper.

And what wasn’t happening? Well, let’s sum that up this way:

It was the third straight game Harper had missed — although we should add that the first two of those games were a four-hour bus ride away, in West Palm Beach and Jupiter. So Harper likely would not have made that trip anyway.

But … when the lineup was posted Sunday morning for the Phillies’ game against the Toronto Blue Jays, there was nothing normal about Harper’s absence from the No. 3 hole. Does that seem like an exaggeration? OK, let’s tick off the reasons it felt conspicuously not normal:

• Had the Face of the Franchise been off for two straight days? He had.

• Were the other players who had been off for two days — Kyle Schwarber and J.T. Realmuto — back in the lineup Sunday? They were.

• Would anyone be watching? They most definitely would. The TV cameras would be beaming every glorious spring moment of this tussle with Toronto back to Philly.

• And were there actual humans streaming through the gates to watch Harper’s Phillies on a lovely, sun-splashed, 81-degree afternoon? Oh, yeah. As usual, there were 10,806 paying customers jamming every vacant inch of BayCare Ballpark’s always-overstuffed seats, berm and tiki bar to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day as only baseball fans could.

Bryson Stott throws to first after tagging out the Blue Jays’ Alan Roden (left) on St. Patrick’s Day. (Dave Nelson / USA Today)

So what did we have here? Good question. Maybe this was nothing. Maybe this was more. But was it something worth asking about? Please refer back to the first two rules of covering spring training. It was. So here’s how that went when Phillies manager Rob Thomson met the media after this game ended in a 5-5 tie.

INQUISITIVE BASEBALL MEDIA MINDS: “Is Bryce going to be in there tomorrow?

THOMSON: “No. He’s just got a little bit of back stiffness, and we went on the road. So I backed him off. He’s been doing a lot of work. A lot of swings. A lot of defensive work. So he just got a little stiff. So we’re just being precautious and just back him off for a few days.”

IBMM: “A few days. What would that involve … no baseball activity?”

THOMSON: “No. Nothing tomorrow, I don’t think. Depends on how he comes in, but he probably won’t do anything tomorrow. Then start getting him going, maybe.”

IBMM: “So what’s your level of concern?

THOMSON: “None. Zero.”

 IBMM: “Is this basically the same stuff that’s kind of nagged him in the past?”

THOMSON: “Yeah, it’s similar, but it’s really just stiffness, so I don’t have any concern at all. He’s going to be ready by Opening Day. He’s going to be playing for sure by the end of the week. So ready to go.”

OK, got it. This was definitely not he’s going to get an MRI … or he’s flying to Los Angeles to see a back specialist … or even he might need a short stint on the injured list, but then we think he’ll be fine. Not even close to any of that.

This was Harper’s manager saying his level of concern was “none” and “zero” and “he probably won’t do anything tomorrow.” So on the great Spring Training Panic Meter, on a scale of one to 10, this was, err, what? A “3”? A “2″? A “zero”?

Hmmm. Good question. We’ll have a better answer for you in, say, 11 days, when the Atlanta Braves show up in Philly for Opening Day. But for now, we’d advise filing this in your Stuff to Watch folder … maybe even your Stuff to Watch Closely folder.

And why is that, especially when the manager — as straightforward a guy as you’ll find in any manager’s office — was going out of his way to low-key this whole “situation”? Well, here are a few reasons for you:

He’s dealt with back stiffness before — Harper has grappled with some form of back stiffness/soreness/discomfort for four years. He missed games in September 2020, April 2021 and last August because of back issues. He also missed time last July because of general “body soreness.” And that’s merely the stuff the Phillies have revealed publicly.

We’ll never know how much back stiffness and soreness Harper has played through the past few years — but friends and teammates have told us it wouldn’t be “none.” We’re talking about a guy who understands the responsibility that comes with being, well, him starts with finding a way to play — unless torn elbow ligaments get in the way. So that’s something to admire, but also something to monitor. Right?

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If Bryce Harper needs to DH more, the ripple effects would impact Kyle Schwarber and others. (Nathan Ray Seebeck / USA Today)

They already have a DH — It’s always a huge deal when Harper is a presence in the Phillies’ lineup. But it’s also always worth noting his position when he’s in that lineup. So this is where it’s time to recall something important:

The 2024 Phillies roster was not constructed with the idea that Harper could spend a lot of time as the designated hitter.

That’s supposed to be Schwarber’s full-time (or mostly full-time) gig this year. And there’s a reason for that. More than one, in fact.

Getting Schwarber off his feet (or, actually, knees) is one reason. Getting Schwarber’s glove out of left field is another reason. So if Harper can be a seven-day-a-week first baseman, this team feels as if it’s upgrading two positions — first and left — defensively. And this roster has been shaped with that goal in mind.

But now ask yourself this: What happens if Harper’s back trouble is persistent enough that he can’t be a full-time first baseman?

The answer: There’s a ripple effect on multiple positions that could throw off the whole blueprint.

Who plays first? Jake Cave? Alec Bohm? Whit Merrifield? Does Schwarber then grab a glove and trot back out to left field? Is it a good idea to move Bohm across the infield again? Then who plays third if he does?

These aren’t just talk-show questions. This team has grappled with them before, in real life. When Harper’s back acted up last August, remember, it significantly upended the plan for him to play first full-time down the stretch.

After he left an Aug. 10 game with back spasms, he missed the next game completely. Then, after his return, he was forced to DH in 14 of the next 20 games — and never started more than a handful of games in a row at first base until the last week of the season and the postseason.

So if he has to DH once a week this year, that’s one thing. But if his only ticket to 550 plate appearances involves a lot more DH time than that? Again, that’s something to monitor. Right?

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It’s only spring training. But Bryce Harper hasn’t looked like himself. (Kim Klement Neitzel / USA Today)

He hasn’t had a normal spring — Finally, there’s one more thing about Harper this spring that is hard to ignore. He hasn’t looked anything like October Bryce at the plate.

All right, it’s spring training, so why would he? We get that. Of course, we get that. It’s a terrible idea to attach significance to any spring training numbers. So that’s not what this is. Nevertheless …

How many home runs has Harper hit this spring, in 26 plate appearances? That would be none. Hang on. None? Right. None.

Take a look at his previous springs. There are a decade’s worth since he arrived in the big leagues on April 28, 2012. He has never had a spring training since in which he hit zero homers. During his last spring training, in 2022, he launched eight of them.

He is slugging .273 this spring. He slugged over 1.100 in that 2022 spring. He has just one extra-base hit all spring — a March 8 double. It’s not hard to pinpoint why.

His launch angle this spring? It’s a shocking 1.6 degrees. His lifetime launch angle? That would be 13.5 degrees. So spring training or not, that’s a metric that’s telling us he’s almost never hitting a ball in the air. This is not a partial sample, either. Every game he has played this spring has been at a park that measures Statcast data.

So what does that tell us? Very possibly nothing meaningful. He hasn’t played a whole lot. His swing is obviously out of whack. It’s spring training. So nothing means anything.

Or does it? When it’s Bryce Harper, when he’s about to spend a day “doing nothing,” when he’s backing off as everyone else ramps up, when Opening Day is a week and a half away, it’s hard to look the other way.

It may be nothing. It may be something. But should we be paying attention? Let’s answer with a question: What are those first two rules of covering spring training again?

The Athletic’s Matt Gelb contributed to this report.

(Top photo of Bryce Harper: Cliff Welch / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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