In general, the Nationals have done a nice job of handling Bryce Harper, a prospect whose talents could have easily lended itself towards questionable decision making. The ultimate fountain of talent, the Nationals, and especially GM Mike Rizzo have kept themselves from day dreaming too much about what could be, and have remained focused on getting to the most realistic pinnacle of Harper's ultimate success.
Rather than fool around with the idea of him catching at the major league level, they immediately announced, upon drafting him, that he would become an outfielder. It was a move that everyone saw as inevitable, not because Harper couldn't stick behind the plate, but rather because anyone who had seen the kid whip his bat towards a baseball knew that he'd be ready to do it in Washington long before he'd be ready to slap on the tools of ignorance there, and because to limit a hitting talent like that to 120 games a season would be like watching a Michael Bay blockbuster on VHS - you could do it, but what a waste it would be.
Most recently, the Nationals resisted the temptation of starting Harper in the majors this season, despite the attempts of their manager, Davey Johnson, to persuade them otherwise. Sure, they may have been on the right side of fate when Harper missed a week with a slight leg injury, but in reality, it was just the opportunity Rizzo and friends were looking for to send Harper back to the minors.
It was a decision that benefited the team two-fold - (1) despite Harper's prodigious talents, he's still an inexperienced and aggressive free-swinger, which, no matter the age, is the most easily exposed species of prospect there is at the major league level, and (2) by holding him back a few months, they get an extra year of his services. No matter how good Harper might have been this year, I'll bet you money I don't have that the 26-year-old version will be a lot better.
So in general, the Nationals handling of Harper has been good. I'd give it a B.
But not an A, for one main reason.
Upon sending him to the minors last week, the team announced that Harper would be playing primarily center field in Triple-A this season. It's an obvious move that makes a lot of sense for Harper and the club.
And it's about freaking time.
I don't know that Harper will be a great center fielder. In fact, I think he'll be average to slightly below-average at it by major league standards, at least in a few years once he starts to thicken out, mainly because he's a good, but not great runner, by pure speed standards. His baseball instincts will allow him to pull it off, but I don't think he's got enough pure speed to be a plus center fielder.
But if there's ever a time when he is going to be able to do it, it's early in his career. And I wouldn't bet against him any more than I'd bet against Tim Tebow somehow becoming the Jets starting quarterback and winning a playoff game there as well. Harper is the kind of player that thrives on people telling him he can't do something.
Not that anybody is saying that about him playing centerfield. In fact, most scouts think he can handle it. The Nationals, in an effort to get him comfortable everywhere in the outfield, played him at all three positions last season, with Harper seeing 51 games in right field, 20 in center, and 37 games in left field.
This is where I begin to question their thinking.
They nailed the decision making part of Harper's development when they immediately moved him out from behind the plate. I imagine the conversation behind closed doors went something like, "if we don't see him ever catching for us in the big leagues, then why waste his time back there in the minors, slow his development down, and risk him getting hurt." I'm paraphrasing, of course, but I'm guessing that's about how long it took the Nats to decide to make Harper an outfielder.
But when moving a player down the positional value scale, why jump so many spots? Why move Harper from catcher to right field without first seeing if he can play center?
Now we're being realistic here. No one suggested that the Nats try him out at shortstop. But let's say that, instead of outfield being the obvious landing point for Harper, that infield was instead. Would you jump him right to second base instead of trying him at short? The Twins usage of Miguel Sano is a good example. Everyone believes that he will be a third baseman at best, if not a first baseman, but until he proves he is too big for short, they let him play it. Sure, it only took about half of a season to figure it out, but he's young, so what was the harm?
It's not like the Nationals immediately moved Harper to first base and gave up on all positional value whatsoever, so I'm picking nits here a little bit, but when it comes to a prospect that is as pre-packaged as Harper was when they drafted him, the small decisions are the only ones to be made, and thus become the big ones.
At the big league level, around six months after drafting Harper, the Nationals effectively blocked him by signing Jayson Werth to a long-term deal. Harper isn't completely blocked, given Werth's ability to play center as well, but while Werth can handle center field adequately, he came in as an above-average right fielder. Between the drafting of Harper and the signing of Werth, Harper had played only a few games in the Arizona Fall League as a reserve. He hadn't even begun his true professional career. Shouldn't the decision at that point have been to try Harper in center field to see if he could handle it, especially given that Werth was on the wrong side of 30 and getting slower, while Harper was still on the right side of 20?
Given the Nationals extreme void of center fielders in the majors, and inability (or unwillingness) to finalize a trade for a solution, this seems like a decision that should have come with flashing lights and siren.
I have no problem with the splitting of time in the outfield last season, given that Harper will ultimately end up in right field at some point in his career, and that playing center and corner outfield positions are two completely different skills to develop. I will say, however, that the 37 games in left field were an absolute waste.
There is no scenario in the next decade in which Bryce Harper should be playing left field. If Vladimir Guererro was still being put in right field when he wasn't DHing, despite no range or knees to speak of, simply because of his rocket arm, then Harper will will as well, even into his late 30's. For reference, Vlad has played a total of seven innings in left field in his career, 8 1/3 innings in center, and the other 13,768 2/3 of his innings in the field in right field, which just goes to show you that no matter how slow or bad of a fielder a player may be, you don't put a great arm in left field. Harper routinely gets 80's on the 20-80 scouting scale for his arm.
So if the Nationals wanted to split time with Harper, they should have taken those other 37 games in left field and had him play them in center. That would have given him 57 games in center and 51 in right, a split that I think is still skewed too far towards the foul line, but would have been better.
Again, I'm nit-picking, but these are the decisions that have additional ramifications.
Last August, at the trade-deadline, Rizzo was remarkably close to trading closer Drew Storen to the Twins for Denard Span. The only hangup was that the Twins also wanted infield prospect Steve Lombardozzi, and Rizzo wouldn't part with both. What if he had? Or what if the Twins had been willing to do just Storen for Span?
The move would have made the Nationals better this year, solving both their leadoff and centerfield issues, but what if that move was made, the Nationals give up an all-star reliever, and Harper turns out to be better in centerfield than any of us think? For all we know, Harper could turn into an above-average centerfielder or better.
RIght now, Harper has had a total of 35 chances in centerfield, off of which the Nationals can't possibly have made a conclusive decision, and given that he's going to be working there now, they either think he can handle it or are eager to find out. But they could have already seen him in three times as many games in center, if they had planned better.
By the time last year's trade deadline had rolled around, the Nationals could have had a much better idea of what Harper could do in centerfield, and if the results were positive, could have saved themselves from making the trade for Span.
Luckily for the Nats, Rizzo held strong, and their decision making on Harper didn't result in the lost of Storen, but it was close. Dangerously close.
And this is why it's worth nit-picking.