It wasn’t the way the Nationals envisioned it, but nevertheless, Bryce Harper has graduated to The Show. With Ryan Zimmerman heading to the disabled list for the second straight season, the team was looking to put an impact bat, as well as perhaps shift the focus away from Zimmerman’s injury, and thus Harper gets the call.
The reason that it has the chance to come off as little more than a publicity stunt is that Harper isn’t hitting all that well so far this season. His .313 wOBA ranks just fifth out of the seven Syracuse Sky Chiefs who have accumulated at least 40 plate appearances. This is actually sort of a continuation of his production at Double-A from last year, where Harper had just a .332 wOBA. He did dominate the Arizona Fall League last year, but in the regular season, he hasn’t hit well since last July.
Since Harper may soon find himself back in the Minors if Zimmerman only misses the minimum, the team could have certainly could have gone with one of its hot hands. Tyler Moore, Corey Brown and Mark Teahen all have experience in the outfield and are sporting .422, .389 and .365 wOBA’s at Syracuse, respectively. Teahen in particular would have been an easy call to make, since he is a Major League veteran. Doing so would have allowed the team to avoid starting Harper’s service time and arbitration clocks, which would seem like an important consideration if this is truly a temporary situation. Even more players will qualify for Super Two arbitration status under the terms of the new collective bargaining agreement, and there are less top prospects in the Majors right now than there have been at this point in the past two seasons. Of Marc Hulet’s top 30 prospects this year, only Matt Moore, Jesus Montero, Devin Mesoraco and Jarrod Parker are in the Majors. Then again, perhaps Zimmerman’s injury is a long-term concern, as Will Carroll suggested earlier today.
And just because Harper hasn’t hit well in 55 games between Double and Triple-A doesn’t mean that he doesn’t deserve the call-up. He has been young for every level, and at just 19 years old, he will be the youngest player in the Majors, displacing the 21-year-old Drew Hutchison — whose reign as the game’s youngest player lasted just eight days. And as Harper showed as an amateur, in A ball and the AFL, there is legitimate thunder in his bat. In addition, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo was in Syracuse to scout the Sky Chiefs earlier this week, and came away impressed with Harper. The error bars for his performance are likely to be wide, but with Washington expected to play him every day starting tomorrow, he will have an opportunity to get his bearings. And even if he doesn’t hit, he should be an asset in the field, as his speed and arm have graded out as plus or better by scouts.
Luckily though, Harper doesn’t have a tall mountain to climb to be a useful hitter for the Nats. To date, Washington has one of the worst offenses in the game. Its .290 wOBA ranks 24th in the game, and is tied for 12th in the National League. The average NL wOBA is just .306, but Washington’s left fielders have been far, far worse than that. Xavier Nady, who has started 10 games in left, is sporting a downright odious .192 wOBA, and he’s been the club’s best left fielder. Mark DeRosa, who has started six of the other nine games in left, is “hitting” .091/.250/.091, which translates to a .187 wOBA. Among players with at least 40 plate appearances, the un-dynamic duo ranks ninth and seventh-worst in the game in wOBA, respectively. It would be difficult for Harper to be worse.
Of course, since Harper doesn’t play third base, DeRosa, or Chad Tracy — whose .138 wOBA is even more abominable, though in an even smaller sample — is still likely to appear in the lineup. Nationals manager Davey Johnson could solve that by playing Steve Lombardozzi instead, but he has only done that in one of the four games since Zimmerman went down. Lombardozzi doesn’t have much experience at the hot corner, but at least he is capable of hitting a baseball, which is a skill that DeRosa and Tracy have not yet demonstrated this season.
But no matter how Johnson juggles the lineup to accommodate Harper, these are minor details in the grand scheme of things. Harper is an uber talent. He ranked either first or second on every major top prospects list this spring, and his Major League debut tomorrow will likely be one of the most exciting moments of the season. With such a dearth of top prospects currently in the Majors, Harper will be the hands-down favorite for Rookie of the Year if he plays well from the jump. If he doesn’t, he may quickly find himself back in Syracuse, and Nats fans will have both his subpar play and Zimmerman’s shoulder to worry about, but the fact that we are going to find out just good he can be sooner than expected is a real treat.