March 18, 2012; Melbourne, FL, USA; Washington Nationals right fielder Bryce Harper (34) makes a play during the spring training game against the Detroit Tigers at Space Coast Stadium. Detroit won 11-7. Mandatory Credit: Brad Barr-US PRESSWIRE

Bryce Harper Demoted: A Brief Reaction

A number of players were optioned to the minors or reassigned to camp on Sunday, but none were more notable than Bryce Harper, who was optioned to Triple-A. Considered by many to be the games top prospect, and considered by everyone to be in the top three, the 19-year-old outfielder entered camp with seemingly an outside chance at the club.

I’m sure it’s easy for Nationals fans to get disappointed about this. There’s been a lot of good news regarding the 2012 Nationals this offseason–they acquired Gio Gonzalez, signed Edwin Jackson, and are set for full seasons of Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann. It thus is a bit of a downer to see the future offensive focal point of the team be deemed unready for prime time.

But really, I’m not the least bit worried about Harper, and I think this was a smart move. Let me explain why.

Well, actually, let me back up first. It bears acknowledging that there’s a defensible argument for Harper to break camp with the big club. There’s a legitimate chance he’s one of the three best outfielders on the team right now. Here’s a list of the outfielders that have played for Washington this spring:

Brett Carroll
Bryce Harper
Roger Bernadina
Jason Michaels
Jayson Werth
Eury Perez
Corey Brown
Rick Ankiel
Xavier Paul
Destin Hood
Randolph Oduber
Michael Taylor

Obviously, Werth will start. But the rest of these players are either prospects who are too far away (Hood, Oduber, Taylor, Perez), bench outfielder types (Michaels, Bernadina, Ankiel, Paul), or Triple-A filler guys (Carroll, Brown). If you’re going to send Harper down, then, you’re setting yourself up to give ~1000 at-bats to the non-Werth outfielders, which is a very frightening thought for a team with contention aspirations.

However, it looks like the Nationals want to put Michael Morse out in left field this year again despite his very poor defense at the spot. While Morse is a terrible left fielder, he hits enough to still be a very worthwhile player, and it’s probably better to have Adam LaRoche and/or Chris Marrero at first and Morse in left than it is to have Morse at first and somebody like Bernadina in left. Even then, though, there’s the right field problem, for which there is no easy answer. The best bet is probably an Ankiel/Michaels platoon, which might be able to eke out 1.5 WAR. Given how strong the rest of the team is, that’s a pretty bad situation, and it’s pretty easy to say “Hey, just put Harper in there. He’s got enough talent to outhit Rick Ankiel!”

And he may well. But here’s the thing–there’s a decent chance he can’t do that yet. This is a guy who hit .256/.329/.395 in Double-A last year. That’s a 103 wRC+; basically, he was a league-average Double-A batter. He also struck out 20% of the time in Low-A last year, and for somebody with his reputation for power, his 17 homers in 109 games were hardly stunning.

None of this is to diminish his future potential. Statistics don’t tell the whole story for that. But they do tell a lot of the story for what a player is able to do right now. Harper doesn’t have a enough of a track record yet to indicate that he’s ready to excel in the majors. His spring performance–small-sample though it is–continues to underscore that, as he struck out 11 times in 28 at-bats, hitting just two doubles and six singles while drawing two walks.

Now, one of the biggest positives about Harper is that he adjusts very well. This was particularly evident in the Arizona Fall League, where he looked lost for the first week of so but roared to a huge finish, with a 1.230 OPS in his last ten games. It’s possible that if the Nationals stuck with him in right field for a full year, he’d flail in April and May but figure things out in June and immediately become one of the NL’s biggest power bats.

But Bryce Harper is 19 years old. He’ll be 19 years old for the duration of the 2012 season, turning 20 on October 16.

There probably isn’t a single player more likely to win an MVP award in 2020 than Bryce Harper. He’s got as good of a chance as anyone to be putting up some monster numbers at the turn of the decade. That much is known.

Now, the Nationals control Bryce Harper for the first six years of his major league career. Chances are quite high that in that fifth or sixth year, he’ll be a star. Harper is represented by Scott Boras, so chances are, he’ll test the market after that season.

If the Nationals play Harper now, he would be a free agent after his age-24 season. In other words, he’d likely be gone from DC right as he hits his age 25-29 prime (I have no idea what the likelihood of him leaving would be, but one would have to think the Yankees would be all over that, right?).

Obviously, the Nationals can’t (and shouldn’t) prolong Harper’s minor league tour for two or three years just for that reason–he should be brought up more or less when he’s ready. But as I outlined above, there’s plenty of reason to believe he’s not ready–if you ignore the money/future component entirely, playing him now would still be a risky move. But when you consider what the Nationals would be doing by playing him now–exchanging his age-25 season for a year where it’s quite possible he could strike out nearly 30% of the time and struggle to top 2 WAR–it makes very little sense.

Consider Jay Bruce, a somewhat similar player in terms of skillset and who was also thought of by many as the best prospect in the game for a time. Bruce got his first MLB exposure when he was 21–a year and a half older than Harper–and had already crushed every level of the minors, not just Low-A and the AFL. And even with the added experience and longer track record, Bruce hit .253/.314/.453 as a rookie, good for just under 1 WAR in 108 games.

Or consider Mike Trout, a player largely on par with Harper according to most (including myself). Trout was called up last year after dominating Double-A, a month before his 20th birthday. He hit .220/.281/.390. For Harper to reach the majors at the same age, he’d just need to be a September callup.

That’s probably what I personally would plan on right now. Give Harper the year in the minors, call him up in September (which doesn’t count toward service time) and play him every day to give him the chance to make those initial adjustments. Then turn him loose in 2013.

Now, it’s interesting Harper was optioned to Triple-A, not Double-A, where he had somewhat underwhelmed down the stretch last year. If Harper comes out firing out of the gates in 2012, I’m fine with moving his timetable up–as I said before, the RF situation in DC will likely be a mess this year, and if Harper seems like he has little left to prove in the minors and the Nationals are in contention, it would make sense for them to give him a chance, as he would thus be the best option in right field.

While it’s probably tough to break the anticipation for a player who’s been touted since he was early in his high school career, Nationals fans should exercise a few months more of patience waiting for Harper. It’ll be worth it.

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