Spring Training will be when Bryce Harper gets to prove that he belongs with the major league squad, right? And by golly, he’s good enough that he’ll kill it in the spring, and all the CF problems will be solved because he’ll play RF and Werth will move to center. Well, if you believe that the Nationals are legitimate World Series contenders this year, flags fly forever and therefore if Harper is the best option, he should play. But if you doubt they could actually take down the Phillies, Braves, Brewers, Cardinals, Diamondbacks or Giants, let alone Yankees, Red Sox, Rays, Angels or Rangers in a 7 game series – WITHOUT Stephen Strasburg who will be shut down by then – well, hold on a moment.
The talk about Harper being held back only because management wants to save some money is ridiculous. This is in the best interest of the FANS, not of management. When Harper does become a free agent, the team should already have been good for quite a while by then, and butts will be in the seats at Nats Park. But in the interest of short term finances (rather than a contract negotiation over a half a decade away) and in the interest of keeping their jobs now not down the road, management could really help fill the stadium by calling Harper up right away and having him play. The fans, on the other hand, should want Harper to start off in the minors.
It’s not about the money, it’s about WHEN he plays. If he is held down a few extra weeks, they get an extra season with him. He is 19 years old right now.Which Bryce Harper would you rather have – the 19 year old one or the one in his mid-20s? I’ll take the latter, who is at an age when hitters start to reach their peak. And that isn’t because of my take on Harper’s ability now, it’s because I don’t think this team is ready to win the World Series this year. At the end of his contract, though, I’d expect them to be real contenders year in and year out, so use him then, thank you very much.
As for his abilities, that is a whole different story. Beyond the control of his contract, I have my doubts that he will be ready to succeed in the majors this April, no matter what he does in Spring Training. Spring Training at bats are against great pitchers, the top in the league, who haven’t pitched competitively in 5 months – for an AB a game. Then they’re against other guys (who also haven’t pitched in months) that are fighting for roster spots. AAAA types, journeymen, youngsters who were given the first week of Spring Training as a gift for a strong season in single-A to show the team’s behind them are all at the party. Spring Training performances, for both hitters and pitchers, are to be looked at with a skeptical eye.
Most managers know this – they don’t truly use Spring Training numbers to determine who wins a position. They might use it to find out who’s healthy, or who is hot at the moment. But if Ryan Zimmerman hits .150 this spring, Mark DeRosa isn’t going to be the starting third baseman, even if DeRosa hits .500.
All of this leads me into my next point – I don’t think Harper is ready to be on the starting roster in April. He had trouble with offspeed pitches in AA, and even if he looks good this spring, it won’t mean those problems have disappeared. He’ll probably need some amount of time in the minors, even if it is just a couple of months. He’ll be 19 this year, and 19 year old superstars aren’t usually great yet. ARod spent some of his 19 year old season in the minors, and hit .232/.264/.408 in his 149 Major League PAs that year. Justin Upton hit .221/.283/.364 in his 152 PAs in the Majors at age 19. Ken Griffey, Jr. hit .264/.329/.420 when he was 19, pretty decent, although not at all Griffey-like, but that was after TWO seasons in the minors.
There just isn’t recent historical precedent by other 19 year old superstars with one year of pro baseball on their resume to suggest that Harper is ready to be any better than other options in the outfield. Center field is a boondoggle at this point, but Harper’s presence in April probably won’t solve that, other than taking away uncertainty. The only certainty would be Harper in RF and Werth in CF, but that doesn’t equal certainty in offensive numbers.
The fans shouldn’t want Harper to be given the job out of Spring Training. No matter how well he hits in the spring, it probably won’t reflect what he will do in the Majors; he probably isn’t ready to face good starting pitchers for 3 ABs a game so it won’t “solve” their OF offensive issues; and Harper will be much more valuable to this team at the end of his deployment with the Nats then at the beginning.