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DALY: Consider Harper for heart of Nationals’ lineup

- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 3, 2012

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The question with Bryce Harper keeps changing. At first it was: When will the Washington Nationals call him up from Triple A? Then it became: Can he play well enough to stay with the big club? And now, incredibly, just 32 games into his major league career, the thought has become: How long before Davey Johnson moves him to the middle of the order?

After games such as Sunday's, it seems "as inevitable as tomorrow, though not quite as imminent," as Jack Kent Cooke liked to say. In a 3-2 loss to Atlanta, Harper absolutely crushed the ball twice — the first resulting in an upper-deck homer, the second in a double that clanged off the out-of-town scoreboard. (Nineteen-year-olds being 19-year-olds, Bryce tried to stretch the latter to a triple but was gunned down because, well, this ain't American Legion ball.)

Harper's bat, which probably should be tested for steroids, wouldn't stick out so much if the rest of the lineup were holding up its end. But the kid is starting to look like an alien among earthlings, what with the No. 3 hitter, Ryan Zimmerman, slugging .333 (and grounding into double plays at an alarming rate) and the No. 5 guy, Michael Morse, in Least Mode rather than Beast Mode after missing the first 50 games with a lat strain. Throw in Danny Espinosa's continuing struggles, and you've got a real power void, one The Rookie is trying mightily to fill.

So far, Harper is doing much more than could have been expected of any teenager. He's batting .288, slugging 209 points higher than Zimmerman (.542) and has shown enough plate discipline to compile a .380 on-base percentage (thanks, in part, to his ability to draw 17 walks vs. 21 strikeouts). In a lot of ways, he's ideal for the 2 hole at this stage of his development; and in a perfect world — that is, in a lineup with more firepower — that's where you'd keep him for at least a season. No sense burdening him with additional pressure, the kind that goes with batting 3, 4 or 5, so soon.

But these are the offense-challenged Nationals we're talking about. On a club like this, Harper probably isn't a 2 hitter. Indeed, by September, we might think of him as the Nats' most dangerous bat. That would have seemed farfetched back in training camp, but it doesn't seem at all looney now.

Morse, of course, still is in his honeymoon period. You can't get down on him after just eight ups, even if he's yet to knock the ball out of the infield. But Zimmerman certainly is fair game. It wasn't too long ago he was the face of the franchise, and he recently signed a six-year, $100 million deal that will keep him in Washington through 2019, if not 2020.

Unfortunately for the Nationals, he hasn't been producing at nearly that level. And while injuries have had something to do with it, his lack of clutch-ness has been glaring. In the eighth Sunday, after Steve Lombardozzi and Bryce Harper had worked lefty Eric O'Flaherty for walks to start the inning, Zim killed the Nats' last scoring chance with his eighth GIDP (in 38 games!).

Afterward, Johnson offered the kind of support he routinely gave slumping Jayson Werth a year ago (not that it did much good): "I feel like he's close. He feels like he's close. He's a big guy in the lineup, and we need him to be comfortable. He's too good a hitter to continue struggling."

But let's not kid ourselves. In the past two seasons, in 609 plate appearances, Zimmerman has hit a modest 14 homers and been barely above average in the OPS+ department. This isn't a Temporary Downturn, it's a full-blown crisis. And what makes it even more damaging is that the Nats are no longer just an afterthought in the National League East. In fact, they're in first place.

"It's definitely not the way I wanted to start the season," he said. "I've just gotta work hard and continue to grind it out. It's been this way before. ... Just don't panic and keep working hard. There's a long way to go in the season."

Yes, there is. And who's to say where Harper will be 110 games from now? Who, for that matter, would have imagined he'd be where he is after just five weeks?

Granted, he still has some rough edges. What 19-year-old doesn't? In both games over the weekend, for instance, he ran into outs — and the manager has talked to him about his overexuberance on the base paths, his excessive risk-taking.

"If you've got the middle of the lineup coming up behind you," Davey said, there are times — such as a 3-2 game — you simply have to settle for a double on a ball off the wall. To which I reply: Yeah, except maybe if the middle of the lineup is going through what the Nats' middle of the lineup is going through. Then, perhaps, you try to get every base you can. Adam LaRoche, I'll just remind everybody, is in a 6-for-50 swoon.

Maybe Bryce Harper would have stopped at second if he'd had a Bryce Harper hitting behind him. See, there's another reason Johnson should slide the kid into the 3, 4 or 5 spot. And with the division race tightening up, it's hard to believe Davey won't consider all of his options.

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