Harper’s Promotion Is Not Just About Playing Baseball

With the injury to Michael Morse, the Nationals have a huge hole in left field. Ryan Zimmerman is on the disabled list with inflammation in his shoulder that has been negatively affecting his throwing and could be a recurrent problem. Rick Ankiel is a good defensive outfielder, but his offense is limited to an occasional home run and stolen base speed with lots of strikeouts and little plate discipline.

Bryce Harper’s recall from Triple-A is, in small part, baseball-related but there are other factors involved in the decision.

On the field, Harper won’t be worse than the left field combination of Xavier Nady, Roger Bernadina and Mark DeRosa. He has star potential and can provide immediate impact. At worst, he’ll hold his own between the lines.

Off the field, at 19-years-old and as self-involved, bratty, catered to and obnoxious as he’s shown himself to be, is he ready for the scrutiny, attention, jealousy and outright loathing he’ll attract? Probably not, but that will take care of itself.

In spite of a league-best 14-6 record, the Nats are 12th in the National League in attendance and there is a spot in the lineup for Harper—it’s not pure shtick to fill the park. They have nothing to lose by bringing him up now. His arbitration clock is ticking, but he’s not going to be eligible for free agency under any circumstances until after 2018. So why not have a look? They can always send him down.

It’s not going to happen this season, but the Nats’ configuration in the field will possibly have Zimmerman shifting to first base to account for his shoulder and inability to throw. Current first baseman Adam LaRoche is off to a hot start, but has a team option for 2013 that’s unlikely to be picked up. Anthony Rendon is a top third base prospect and Harper can find a home somewhere in the outfield.

The Nats are one of the few organizations in baseball with depth at third base, and they can replicate what the Dodgers of the early 1970s did when they had two big league-ready third basemen (Steve Garvey and Ron Cey) and one—Garvey—who couldn’t throw the ball to first base without it being a hair-raising adventure. They moved Garvey to first base and he became an MVP, perennial All-Star and Gold Glove winner. For all of Garvey’s polished good looks, crafted image and Hollywood star power, the awkward and strange-looking Cey (known as the Penguin because of his odd body type and style of running) was an excellent player in his own right and as much, if not more, of a key to the Dodgers dominance in that decade and beyond.

The Nationals have similar options.

For Harper, it’s not the actual playing of that game that will be the attention-grabber, but how opposing clubs, umpires, the media and even his own team react to his first tantrum.

As far as playing, he’ll be fine, but if the Nats suggest that it’s a purely baseball-related decision, it’s simply not the truth.

My book, Paul Lebowitz’s 2012 Baseball Guide, is now available in the I-Tunes store.

Check it out here.

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