Phillies star Bryce Harper eyes midseason return after Tommy John surgery

AP file photo by David J. Phillip / Philadelphia Phillies star Bryce Harper has joined the team at spring training in Florida and is taking a slow and steady approach to returning to competition this season after having Tommy John surgery during the offseason.

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Philadelphia Phillies slugger Bryce Harper has joined his teammates at spring training, and the two-time National League MVP hasn't ruled out being back by Major League Baseball's All-Star break after having Tommy John surgery last fall.

Opening day is March 30, and the MLB All-Star Game is July 11 in Seattle. Philadelphia returns to action two days later by hosting the San Diego Padres in a rematch of last year's National League Championship Series won by the Phillies. They're on the road for six games in Florida — three each against the Tampa Bay Rays and Miami Marlins — just before the midseason break.

"Things can change either way," Harper said Thursday. "I could be (back) after, I could be before. But as of right now, that's the date we kind of solidified. We're not going to rush. We're going to be smart about it."

Dressed in red Phillies shorts with pinstripes and a white workout shirt, Harper sat on top of a picnic table outside the clubhouse.

"Just excited to be back out here, some sunshine and some warm weather," Harper said. "Just really excited to be around the team again."

Harper was hurt in April and most recently played right field on April 16 in Miami, although he remained a big part of the Phillies' postseason run as a designated hitter. He had surgery in November.

"Once I was done with surgery, I took the time off that I needed to let it heal," Harper said. "It's still healing right now, still evolving. Just trying to see how I feel each day and go from there."

Entering the fifth season of a $330 million, 13-year contract, the 30-year-old Harper is currently taking swings with a bat but not facing pitches.

"I've never dealt with anything like an elbow, so definitely it's different waters for me," Harper said. "Just trying to take it day by day."

Philadelphia manager Rob Thomson said Harper is making progress and added hitting off a tee on Thursday. Harper will hit every other day for the time being.

Thomson said Harper probably won't take batting practice before spring training ends.

"You've got a lot of steps to go through," Thomson said. "It's just how he progresses through this, his stages. We're going to take it slow with him. Obviously he's a great player, and we want him back 100%."

Harper had a platelet-rich plasma injection on his elbow in May and became a full-time DH to finish the season, helping lead the Phillies to their first World Series appearance since 2009. They lost to the Houston Astros in six games.

"We're thankful for the DH, again," Harper said with a smile, referring to the NL's adoption of the lineup spot for good in 2022. "I was so against it, right? But I'm all about it, and I love doing it, too."

Harper will have the same role when he returns. It is expected to be a while before he starts a throwing program that would allow him to return to playing defense.

"Of course, I want to play the outfield," Harper said "I want to get back out there and be in front of the fans in right field, doing my stuff and hearing it from all the teams' (fans) in the league, too."

Thomson couldn't say yet if Harper will play in the outfield this year.

"It all depends on how he heals and gets into his throwing program, how all that works out," the manager said. "I don't think it's out of the question."

Harper missed two months last season after breaking a thumb when he was hit by a pitch in late June but hit .286 with 18 homers and 65 RBIs in 99 games.

He batted .349 with six home runs and 13 RBIs in 17 postseason games. His two-run homer with two outs in the eighth inning led the Phillies to a 4-3 victory over the Padres that captured the NL pennant.

The Phillies had an active offseason, adding shortstop Trea Turner, infielder Josh Harrison and pitchers Craig Kimbrel, Gregory Soto, Matt Strahm and Taijuan Walker.

Turner signed an 11-year deal worth $300 million after hitting .298 with 21 home runs, 100 RBIs, 101 runs and 27 stolen bases last year with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Said Harper: "The people of Philadelphia are going to love this guy just because of the way he plays."