November 24, 2014

Washington Nationals sending Bryce Harper to AAA makes sense all the way around

To read comments from some national baseball writers, the Washington Nationals decision to send Bryce Harper down to the minor leagues to start the season was “the right thing to do,” simply because the player is just 19 years gold.

Bryce Harper watching game from the dugout during spring training (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

I’m not a scout, but what I saw of Harper last week while in Florida indicated to me he needs to see a good bit of Triple-A level pitching before he’s ready to be a difference-making contributor at the Major League level, and I’m guessing that Mike Rizzo felt the same way.

After the Nationals’ 11-7 loss to the Detroit Tigers Sunday, in which Harper went 1-for-5 with four strikeouts (two looking, two swinging), the 19-year old phenom was sent to minor league camp, optioned to Triple-A Syracuse. According to multiple reports, the Nats want Harper playing predominantly center field while playing for the Chiefs — which itself was pretty big news.

In his time in Major League camp, Harper went 8-for-28 (.286) — with a team leading 11 strikeouts against two walks — and just two extra base hits, both doubles.

Harper faced a steady diet of breaking balls this spring, and while he made some good contact (especially before he strained a calf muscle and missed a week), he showed that he needs to face more seasoned pitching for a while before being counted on to produce for the Nats. How long is “a while”? Only Harper and Rizzo will know.

Harper was going to have to be the Nats far-and-away best player this spring to make the big league club, and he wasn’t. Harper has to work on his pitch recognition, at-bat strategy, center field defense and base running before he’ll be back in a Major League uniform.

The timing of that promotion will be the most talked about subject in NatsTown until it happens, much like two years ago when Stephen Strasburg made his ascension to the big leagues.

Since Harper wasn’t ready for Opening Day, it makes sense that he remain in the minors until he’s no longer eligible for Super Two status, delaying the start of his salary arbitration clock and retaining his rights through the 2018 season. Would you rather have a few weeks of 19-year old Harper or a full season of age 25 Harper? It’s a no-brainer, no matter how exciting the prospect of having him on the roster now might be.

It will probably be too tempting to the Nats not to promote Harper at some point in 2012, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility that we don’t see Harper in D.C. before roster expansion in September.

So where does that leave the Nats outfield situation?

The easy part is that Jayson Werth slides back over to right field. Davey Johnson made comments recently that he was concerned about the wear and tear of center field on Werth, and rightfully so. Michael Morse is slotted for left field, but every day he doesn’t play with lingering soreness in a strained lat muscle concerns grow that he might not be ready opening day.

Center field, however, becomes a revolving door again, but when hasn’t that been the case for the Nats? Rick Ankiel, himself hobbled with a hamstring strain, Roger Bernadina and Brett Carroll will all get a chance to earn the opening day start. All have strengths and glaring weaknesses, and none will really help the Nats biggest problem offensively: generating base runners. If I had to guess at this point, I’d guess an Ankiel/Carroll platoon at the start of the season with Bernadina and Jason Michaels as the back-up outfielders.

If Morse (or Adam LaRoche, for that matter) isn’t able to start the season healthy, then you’re looking at Bernadina and Michaels platooning in left until stability could return to the Nats roster.

The Nats are going to be starved for offense this season. As we wrote back in January, if the Nats offense is going to improve, it has to be from within. A return to health from Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche and a return to career norms from Jayson Werth would give the Nats a head start. But no Bryce Harper yet puts even more added pressure on Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa and Wilson Ramos to improve their offensive games, because we know fairly confidently how Ankiel, Bernadina, Carroll and Michaels will perform.

About Dave Nichols

Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Washington Nationals, Capitals, Wizards and Mystics. Dave also covers national college football and basketball and Major League Soccer for Associated Press. He spent four years in radio covering the Baltimore Orioles, Washington Redskins and the University of Maryland football and basketball teams. Dave is a life-long D.C. sports fan and attended his first pro game in 1974 — the Caps’ second game in existence. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveNicholsDSP

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