CLEARWATER, Fla. — The Phillies won’t place Bryce Harper on the 60-day injured list as he recovers from elbow surgery because they hope he can return as their designated hitter before May 29, which would be the first day he’d be eligible to return, president Dave Dombrowski said Tuesday.
“When Bryce comes back he’s going to be the DH, at least until ... “ he trailed off. “I don’t know when he returns to the outfield.”
If at all.
Harper said Tuesday that he isn’t sure if he will return to right field before 2024.
“I don’t know. I think it’s too early to tell. I’m not sure the way I’m going to feel. Or when I’m going to start throwing,” Harper said. “The thing in the forefront of our minds is just me trying to get back in the lineup and DH as of now. As we progress, we’ll see what happens.”
Harper damaged his elbow in April, played through the injury as the Phillies’ DH most of last season, then underwent Tommy John surgery in late November after fueling the run to the World Series. Initial projections pointed to a mid-July return, but Harper has responded so well to rehab that he might be back in the batter’s box by June.
“I’m hitting. Doing all my cage stuff. My routine,” he said.
That includes regular batting practice with hitting coach Kevin Long. But he’s a long way from throwing a baseball from right field at 98 mph.
“We’re still on a timeline,” Harper said.
Just returning to the lineup as DH by June might be ambitious, but not impossible. It’s a best-case scenario, and Harper has to pass several milestones without a setback. There’s little sense in having him in the lineup in June if he re-injures himself and isn’t available in October.
The Phillies might have a more than serviceable option.
With Harper’s injury in mind, the Phillies claimed veteran outfielder Jake “Caveman” Cave off waivers in December. Cave, 30, responded with one of the best spring trainings in Phillies history and the best of his nine pro springs. He added two hits to his ledger Tuesday. In 18 games he hit .434, had a 1.372 OPS and 14 RBIs — not only the best marks on the team this spring one of the best spring training performances in franchise history. He also hit three home runs and four doubles.
The name doesn’t quite fit — Cave looks more Hollywood than Neanderthal, with sharp features and piercing blue eyes — and he isn’t an unknown quantity, either. He shined with the Twins in 2018 and 2019, with 21 home runs as a part-time player, but he sputtered during the 2020 COVID season and had a back fracture in 2021. Now he’s happy, healthy, and raring to go.
“You may dream about something like this going this way, but it never actually happens that way,” Cave said. “Everything that I wanted to happen, happened. I worked my ass off. I’m proud of myself. I made a World Series-caliber team. I want to be out there. I want to contribute.”
He’ll have plenty of chances, especially in the field. The better Cave plays, the more relaxed Harper and the Phillies can be regarding Harper’s return.
“I want to keep that door open, but I want to be smart about it,” Harper said. “I don’t want to come back and be, ‘Hey, I’m back!’, and not help.
“Or get hurt again.”