The Philadelphia Phillies enter the 2023-2024 offseason with a really strong roster.
Aside from two major free agents that they can potentially retain there are not many holes throughout the team. While the Aaron Nola/no. 2 starter storyline is a big question to find an answer for, their lineup is pretty much set in stone.
The Phillies have options at every position, and the current pool of position players in free agency isn’t the greatest. The question then becomes, who can the Phils sign to make a splash?
The answer to that question is none other than Shohei Ohtani.
The Phillies adding Shohei Ohtani would be met with a reinvigorated sense of energy from the fanbase.
After going out and flopping in the NLCS, this would be a way to totally redeem themselves. Although Ohtani is dealing with his second Tommy John surgery recovery, his outrageous talent is worth betting on. The way he bounced back after his first TJ is encouraging. Philly isn’t shy about its willingness to spend the big bucks, making them one of the few teams with a legitimate shot at landing him.
But the Phillies winning the Ohtani sweepstakes will come at the cost of a major roster decision: finding a place for Kyle Schwarber.
The most divisive leadoff hitter in baseball is a huge part of the Phillies. In 2023, Schwarber was first on the team in home runs by a lot and second on the team in RBI with 104 (two behind Nick Castellanos). While his below-average speed and defense are legitimate weaknesses, his plate approach and raw power continue to make him a feared presence with the bat. In the clubhouse, he’s a steady, veteran presence whose arrival to the team has matched its ascent into a postseason squad.
Ohtani, of course, occupied the designated hitter spot in the lineup. Schwarber is best suited for that spot moving forward. Ohtani is absolutely worth at least checking into but if he wants to sign, Schwarber’s spot in the lineup becomes uncertain. What can the Phillies do?
There are four main options for making Ohtani and Schwarber work together.
Option 1: Use Schwarber off the Bench
This is probably the least realistic option — and for good reason. The Phillies making Schwarber a backup would not be wise. It would make for a heck of a pinch hitter, but you can’t bench one of just two players to hit 90 home runs over the last two seasons (his 93 are second to Aaron Judge’s 99).
Plus, Schwarber losing the rhythm of seeing live pitching every game would probably make him a less dangerous hitter. His weaknesses are part of the reason the Phillies only have so many lineup possibilities but making him a backup, even a platoon guy, would be awful optics that would generate questionable results.
Option 2: Trade Schwarber
Any team in need of power at the plate would certainly be interested in acquiring Schwarber if the Phillies put him on the trade block. At $20 million AAV over the next two seasons, Schwarber’s contract is hefty but not unmovable. He should still, at least, be good for a few dozen home runs per season for the duration of his deal.
Of course, there are complications to trading Schwarber. His leadership is valuable, as is how he works counts, and smacks dingers. When you get compared to Steph Curry, it’s safe to say you’re a keystone on the roster. Adding Ohtani would help offset his subtraction but having to deal with said subtraction is incredibly unappealing.
Straight-up swapping Ohtani with Schwarber isn’t as much of an upgrade. It’s definitely an upgrade but not one that would revamp the Phillies offense — the high-level run production would be in the same spot, not added to a new one. Ideally, they would want to have both of them.
Option 3: Play Schwarber Mostly in the Outfield
Trading Kyle Schwarber is the most realistic option for the Phillies. Kyle’s defense was never the best but has considerably fallen off this past season. The ball may be going boom, but it may also be finding the grass in front of the left field wall a whole lot more if Schwarber continues taking the field.
Schwarber is one of — if not the — very worst defenders in baseball by numerous metrics. It’s time for him to join the likes of J.D. Martinez and other guys who only play the field here and there, especially with the likes of statistically poor defenders Nick Castellanos and Trea Turner in the lineup.
Throw in Brandon Marsh presumably moving back to center field, where he’s less effective, and compounding the defensive shortcomings with Schwarber would be untenable, even though Ohtani’s big bat would help offset them.
There is a way for the Phillies to sign Ohtani and continue to have Scwharber be an everyday player. It’s wild. But it’s perhaps what’s best.
Option 4: Teach Ohtani How to Play First Base, Put Harper Back in the Outfield, and Platoon Them With Schwarber at DH
The Phillies would need to pick up juggling in order to work all three of Schwarber, Harper, and Ohtani into their lineup on a consistent basis. Training Ohtani to play first base so that he and Schwarber can take turns in the field and in that lineup spot is the way to make it happen. Harper would have to be willing to play both first base and outfield to accommodate them. Stay with me, and I’ll explain.
Ohtani’s lone games playing the field as a non-pitcher in MLB came in 2021, where he spent six games in right field and one in left. He played outfield a little bit with the Nippon Ham Fighters before joining the Los Angeles Angels. He has seemingly not played first base ever, at the professional level. Schwarber tried in 2021 with the Boston Red Sox and, although he gave it a good effort, admitted that he’s happy to play in the grass instead of the dirt.
The option of simply making Schwarber play first base again is technically still in play for the Phillies, right? Not unless you want to unlock a whole new level of disastrous defense. In 10 games at first for Boston, he posted -4 outs above average. Rhys Hoskins has been maligned for his defensive shortcomings and posted -9 outs above average in 2022 but did so over the course of 156 games.
Keep in mind that this is a cumulative stat and that Schwarber tallied almost half of what Hoskins did in just over six percent of Hoskins’ amount of games. Two worse defensive seasons later, the Phillies absolutely can’t use Schwarber at first. It would have to be Ohtani and Harper splitting the bulk of the duties.
The Phillies teaching Harper how to play first base — and at a pretty good level — inspires hope that they could teach Ohtani. Like Harper, Ohtani is a good athlete — big, mobile and fairly nimble. But would he be willing to learn a totally new position that would almost certainly ditch the minute his arm is cleared to pitch?
He really might be. The guy really wants to win. Picking up a brand new position is a lot to ask of Ohtani but also a surefire way to 1) prove his commitment to winning and 2) get the best out of a team that would give him a strong shot to win it all.
Risk vs. Reward
Ohtani playing first base while recovering from Tommy John would have to be treated more cautiously than Harper doing it. Aside from the obvious fact that they have different bodies, Ohtani is dealing with his second Tommy John recovery and will be looking to make it back to the mound whereas Harper could be fine sticking at first. Any wear and tear on Ohtani’s arm would be more costly.
Having Harper be a first baseman and outfielder regularly would be a tough choice for him to make. The choice will be his for where to play defense and perhaps with the opportunity to add Ohtani, he would consider playing both spots. One nice way to look at it: he would be mainly an outfielder but with a few opportunities to “rest” at first base.
One downside with this option is that it would effectively freeze Hoskins out of a spot. Gaining Ohtani would be worth it, but it would mean Hoskins, a clubhouse favorite who has been with the organization for a decade, finding a new team. That could already be the case with the Phillies’ new lineup possibility of Harper at first and their young outfielders, though.
If Ohtani buys into the plan, it wouldn’t be clear what the lineup the Phillies would use in the playoffs. Depending on how well he plays first, it might be to have him there, Schwarber at DH and Harper in right. And assuming Ohtani is able to pitch again in 2025, Schwarber would have to take the field when Ohtani starts.
But at least for 2024, if the Phillies are able to convince Ohtani to sign, the plan to incorporate him into the most optimal lineup would have to be a wonky one.
Photo Credit: (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)