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Should Phillies be concerned about Bryce Harper’s long-term durability?


Bryce Harper is in his third season with the Phillies. (Dustin Bradford/Icon Sportswire)

The Philadelphia Phillies placed Bryce Harper on the 10-day injured list Tuesday, certainly a suboptimal outcome for their chances of breaking out of a slump and staying afloat in the National League East in 2021.

Still, another, much more ominous, question looms over this all: Are the Phillies going to have trouble keeping Harper on the field for the remainder of a contract that runs through 2031?

Granted, this specific injury — a left forearm contusion — is a freak injury. Harper was hit in the face and ultimately his left wrist on a pitch from St. Louis Cardinals reliever Génesis Cabrera on April 28. The Phillies became aware this past Sunday that it was bothering the six-time All-Star again, and after a few days of saying he wasn’t injured, they elected to place him on the injured list Tuesday and backdate it to May 23.

Still, after playing in 157 games in his first season with the Phillies, Harper has struggled to stay healthy — even when he’s been on the field — since the start of the 2020 season.

He played at least half of the pandemic-shortened 2020 season with a back injury that left him unable to throw in the final days of the season. Harper missed a game out of precaution in mid-April with lower back tightness, which he called “a flare up in a little bit different of an area” from what he had dealt with last year. The good news is that the day off appeared to help Harper bounce back. The bad news is that he’s a player with quite a bit of motion in his swing, which will continue to put pressure on his back.

For now, the Phillies say that Harper’s back — along with his shoulder, which forced him to leave a game earlier this month — are fine, and they are hopeful he’ll be able to come off the injured list when he’s eligible to do so. But what level of concern is there about him staying healthy in the short and long-term future?

“I think it’s pretty normal that as you start to rack up games in your career, you just have to monitor players and they have to stay on top of, I don’t wanna say it’s rehab, but it’s precautionary all the time … all the work that you do. He’s been really good about it,” Joe Girardi said Tuesday. “So, the freak injury, you can’t predict those. But, if you look at — knock on wood — his back this year, except for a couple days, it’s been pretty good. So, I feel pretty good about the work he’s put in on that, the discipline that he has to do that work every day and [his ability] to stay healthy.”

In some senses, the Phillies would like to avoid Harper having the same fate as Chase Utley did in his early-30s. Following one of the greatest peaks that a second baseman has ever had, Utley played in just 301 of 486 possible games from 2010-2012, his age-31-33 seasons.

Utley constantly played at (or above) 100% in his 20s, making him one of the most beloved players in franchise history. It may also have contributed to him developing chronic knee problems in his early 30s. Utley would rebound beginning in 2013 and remain a productive player into his late 30s. Still, poor health for those three seasons certainly didn’t help the Phillies’ chances of winning a second World Series, and it kept Utley from cementing what once appeared to be a career certain to end in Cooperstown.

There are some similarities in the games of Harper and Utley. Both sprinted to first base every time there was a remotely close play. Both had no problems sliding head first to assure that they got the extra base. Both were willing to throw their bodies around in the field; attempting to get to the ball that another fielder would be content to allow to drop, or throw out a runner that most would accept reaching base.

As you get older, though, you may have to pick your battles. Utley didn’t play in more than 100 games in a season until his age-26 season, and still saw his body begin to break down in his early 30s. Harper is only 28, but he made his major league debut when he was 19, and is only 757 games behind the total number of games that Utley played throughout the course of his entire career. And while Utley hardly struggled financially during his career, Harper still has $248 million remaining on his deal after 2021, much more than Utley made in his 16 seasons in the big leagues.

So does Girardi think it would be a good idea for Harper to sometimes play the game at 90 or 95% effort, as opposed to 110%?

“I do,” Girardi admitted. “We talk about that sometimes, because he puts on the uniform and goes to work every day. He wants to play every day, and he wants to be out there for his teammates and the organization and the fans, but sometimes, it might be too much.”

This is an ongoing conversation between Girardi and Harper.

Matt Gelb of The Athletic wrote after the Phillies signed Harper to a 13-year/$330 million deal that “Harper’s contract will not end well. The Phillies know this. The rest of baseball knows this.” That’s probably true, but the reason why the Phillies were willing to meet Harper’s asking price of 13 years, no opt-outs and a full no-trade clause was because they were likely to get peak production in the first six or seven years of the deal. This is year three of the contract, and you don’t even feel like Harper has had his best season as a Phillie yet.

To put together a prolonged stretch of elite seasons, though, Harper will need to consistently stay on the field, and be healthy when he’s playing. He is aware of that, and talked in April about balancing wanting to go all out on every play, but also making sure that he can deliver peak performance in 2021 and hopefully much longer.

“Consistency is key, right? Really going out there and trying to be consistent with my work and what I do on a daily basis in the batter’s box. I definitely need to be a little bit smarter with how I play,” Harper said in April, the day after the aforementioned back tightness kept him out of the lineup. “It [tweaking his back] happened on the ball I feel like in right-center when I jammed it into second base pretty hard. Most three-hole hitters or four-hole hitters don’t really go to second base on that. But you guys know how I play -– I enjoy playing the game … I enjoy playing hard … getting that extra base for the guy behind me and things like that.

“So I think definitely being a little bit smarter on the field, but also being smarter and more cautious off the field [is what I need to do]. Like Joe said, they usually have to fight me to get me out of my uniform, because I do enjoy playing and the Phillie fans deserve that … this organization deserves that. But also, they put value on days off as well now. So if I can get the rest that I need — once or twice a month — and then get us into September, I think it’s definitely a smart call, but definitely a tough one for me.”

It feels like Harper’s time with the Phillies is at an important juncture. Girardi has reminded him that he’s 28 years old now, not the teenager that broke into the game with the Washington Nationals. He’s 28 with more games played than the overwhelming majority of 28 year olds in MLB history. We’ll see if he’s able to make the necessary adjustments to his preparation and playing style to help stay as healthy as possible over the lifetime of his contract with the Phillies.

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