The news of Bryce Harper‘s assignment to play centerfield for the Syracuse Chiefs, the Nationals’ AAA affiliate, is good news for Nats fans, the young man himself, and cities across the International League.
While many fans in D.C. long to see Harper blast tape measure home runs for the home nine, his demotion makes it near-certain that he will not join the Nationals until May or perhaps as late as July, or, if he is a really slow learner, September. Under all these scenarios, he will not be able to become a free agent until 2018. If he is added to the major league roster after mid-June, he will not achieve “Super Two” status, meaning he is eligible for large salary increases via arbitration, until 2014.
The ability to delay Harper’s salary bumps and free agency saves millions for the Nationals to add other players as they strive to become a perennially competitive club. Funds to retain teammates such as Stephen Strasburg, Drew Storen, Wilson Ramos, and Danny Espinosa may cause Harper and agent Scott Boras to consider a contract extension instead of waiting until 2018 for Harper to test the market and perhaps join his beloved Yankees. Harper clearly likes winners and these top players, along with Ryan Zimmerman, could help elevate the Nationals to that category.
All this, however, is painfully premature. While many assume Harper will become a baseball superstar, he has yet to play a single regular season game at even the AAA level. He put up pedestrian numbers in a mere 37 AA games at Harrisburg.
No one seems to miss these vital facts more than Harper himself. While his youth gives him some leeway, his brash comparisons to Joe Namath, his outrageous smears of eye black, his pre-Crash Davis tutored Nuke LaLoosh-like quotes, and his upcoming feature in GQ magazine, full of other “10-cent brain” zingers, all prove the young man never heard the wise advice “actions speak louder than words.”
He needs to turn down the arrogance in Syracuse and learn some humility as well as how to play centerfield, hit breaking balls, and look less pitiful against left-handed pitching. He might also want to memorize and emulate the scene in “Bull Durham” where Davis teaches LaLoosh how to give bland, humble quotes to reporters. There needs to be more “I just want to kind of help the team a little bit and learn what I need to down here” words from his young mouth.
His “piss and vinegar” approach to playing the game isn’t all bad. For years, the Nationals have been too non-confrontational as a ball club. That will change with Davey Johnson in charge. Eventually, Harper might provide the jolt of “Natitude” the team could use. He just needs to put up some results – maybe a walk-off hit or a game-saving catch or two – before he runs his mouth again. A little time riding buses around the International League will take his edge off, leaving an appropriate, not a laughable, level of self-assuredness.
In the meantime, while he learns better baseball and humility, his presence should enliven Syracuse’s contests and give a sizable boost to attendance across the 14-team International League. Alliance Bank Stadium should be filled to capacity on April 5 at 2:00 p.m. when the Chiefs open their season against the Rochester Red Wings. In Syracuse, fans will cheer him, in the league’s 13 other cities, more fans than usual will show up to mock him and jeer him.
That — and everything else in Syracuse — will be part of Harper’s needed learning process. Why rush the kid? It took almost certain Hall-of-Famer Chipper Jones three years to make the Atlanta Braves. Let him stay in the bushes until he is really ready.
One day, Bryce Harper may be an all-star. Today’s decision will keep him in DC longer, make him a better baseball player, humble him, and help the Syracuse economy. By not rushing him to the majors when he is clearly not ready, the Nationals make his eventual stardom more likely when he is. Most important, today’s decision gives young Harper the time and the opportunity to handle greatness once it arrives.