The Nationals search for a center fielder over the last several years has taken on the feel of watching your best friend who really wants to get married. The desperation, which is obvious to even the casual observer, puts off any potential partner. Blind dates end up running the other way. No one uses that cell phone number your friend keeps handing out to strangers in every club and bar.
Then, when your friend gives up looking for love, thinking that the perfect someone will never come along, they meet their mate when they aren’t trying anymore.
It is no secret around major league baseball that the Nats have been trying to land a center fielder (who is also a lead off hitter and a base stealer) for years. Everyone in MLB is aware of how desperate the Nats have been to get a center fielder. The Astros last year practically gave Michael Bourn away to the Braves for worse prospects than the Nats would have offered for him. There are rumors floating around that the Nats were willing to offer the Orioles three or four players (including Steve Lombardozzi) for Adam Jones. The Orioles said no thanks. Discussions regarding players the Nats have been interested in trading for (B.J. Upton and Denard Span come to mind) have gone nowhere. The center fielder search reached the level of a joke. The Bourn trade should have made it obvious to the Nats that the rest of MLB was going to leave them twisting in the wind, never using Rizzo’s cell phone number he has been giving out for years to offer a second date, or a center fielder.
The Nats did not sign a center fielder in the off season. The Nats decided to have center field by committee and wait to make a move at the trade deadline or after the season was over. Once they had settled on that solution for this season, a funny thing happened. A center fielder dropped in their lap. His name is Bryce Harper. The Nats found their center fielder when they quit looking.
When the Nats decided to turn Bryce Harper into an outfielder, I kept saying to anyone who would listen, “Why not make him a center fielder?” All the baseball geniuses I know laughed at me. They said that since he was a catcher, he probably didn’t have the speed to man center field. One of those geniuses pointed out that the center field position is the hardest to learn, and that most good center fielders have been playing the position for years in the minors or in college. He said there was no way that the Nats could just turn Harper into a center fielder.
All of those baseball geniuses have been admitting to me over the past couple of weeks that I was right and they were wrong. Most of us heard the Harper hype about his phenomenal hitting skills. The fact that Harper is really fast escaped most of us. He is still learning the position, yet when he plays center there is not much of a drop off between him and Rick Ankiel. Ankiel still has the most accurate throwing arm and tracks balls better, but Harper is getting there. Harper has a cannon for an arm (another fact that escaped most of us) and as he gets more experience making throws from center to the plate his accuracy will improve. He has already made some highlight reel catches in the outfield, a position he has only been playing for a year.
Think about that. Harper has only been playing outfield for a year. He is so athletic and his skill set is so outrageous that he is now a starting center fielder/outfielder for a major league team, a position that he is literally still learning and adjusting to, and he is not an embarrassment out there. His batting average is better than Span’s or Upton’s, two of the candidates in which the Nats are interested.
Utilizing Harper in center also solves the Nats problem of what to do with the outfield positions once Jayson Werth is ready to play again. Michael Morse moves to left, Harper is in center and Werth goes back to right. Problem solved. Adding Michael Bourn or another center fielder is going to cause problems. Unless the Nats move Morse to first base next year (and then what do you do with Tyler Moore?) the Nats won’t be able to get all three of the big outfield bats into the lineup. Harper seems to have fit in well with the team. I am not sure that will be the case with Span and Upton, both of whom have reputations for being difficult. The Nats don’t need that kind of aggravation in the clubhouse.
Harper is fast enough to play center field and steal bases. He hits for average and for power. He may be the center field-base stealing-hitting solution for the position that the Nats have been romancing all these years. Hopefully the Nats are smart enough to realize their perfect center field partner has fallen into their laps. I think this could be the beginning of a beautiful relationship.