Harper in CF? Hey, Why Not?


May 6, 2014; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Nationals left fielder Bryce Harper (34) stands in the dugout during the sixth inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Nationals Park. Los Angeles Dodgers defeated Washington Nationals 8-3. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

With Bryce Harper possibly due back July 1, the Nationals face an interesting dilemma in regards to where they plan to play their position players.  There are many ideas floating around as to what the new lineup should look like, so I’ve decided to suggest one of my own:  sit Span and let Harper roam center.  This is an idea that’s been floated around for the past few weeks, and to me it makes the most sense of all of them.

First, here is the current situation:

  • The Nats infield defensively is much better with Anthony Rendon playing third and Danny Espinosa at second.  Ryan Zimmerman struggled to make the throws from third to first earlier in the season, and unless things have drastically changed, he won’t be any better if the lineup should return to Opening Day status.  Leave the infield alone.  Lately it’s been a real positive.
  • Espinosa can’t hit.
  • Zimmerman is 29 years old, makes 14 million this season and 74 million through 2019 with an 18 million dollar team option for 2020, and because of his throwing shoulder is impossible to hide in the field.
  • Jayson Werth is 35, makes 20 million this season and 63 more through 2017, and he suddenly can’t hit for power.
  • Adam LaRoche is 34, a free agent after this season, and currently sports an OPS+ of 151.
  • Denard Span has a team option for next year, has the lowest OBP of his career, and rarely takes a walk, leading to bouts of inconsistency.
  • Bryce Harper is 21, signed through 2018, and was picked by some as a preseason favorite for NL MVP.  He’s not even in the discussion for sitting.  Move along.  There’s nothing to see here.

There you have it.  Easy to fix, right?  I’d just as soon back see the team move Zimmerman to second and replace Espinosa than put things back the way they were, which is what’s going to happen, so why are we debating this?  Seriously, though, Zimmerman can’t make that throw to first anymore, not with consistency, and you don’t necessarily need Alex Gordon in left.  For years the Pirates and Mets kept Jason Bay in left, a horrid fielder, and his bat more than made up for his shortcomings.

Essentially, though, it comes down to one of two options:  sit Espinosa or sit Span.  While the knee-jerk reaction is to keep Span in the lineup since he provides speed, the ability to leadoff, and a steady defensive presence directing the outfield, after reviewing the numbers many of these arguments are more sentiment than reality.

According to both dWAR (-0.2) and UZR (-2.9), Span has been below average in the field this year.  While historically Span has been above average in center (and, admittedly, defensive statistics are still counting stats and can be inconsistent), this year it’s not the case.  In fact, Span’s Range Runs, a statistic that measures how many balls a player gets to, is in the negative for the first time since 2009.  Perhaps this is a blip.  F.P. Santangelo can wax poetic about the clean routes Span takes to balls as much as he likes, but the numbers so far this year don’t support any extraordinary play in the field.

The one negative I see replacing Span with Harper is now you’ll have two players in unfamiliar positions in the outfield, and in right field, while Werth certainly tries hard, his fielding can often times be an adventure.  Still, I think Harper is certainly talented enough to handle the transition to center.  Also, if he’s playing the same position as Mike Trout, we can have a great time comparing the relative careers in earnest.  For baseball’s sake, not just the Nats, this needs to happen.

Span’s speed is an asset but don’t mistake his ability to steal a base with game changing speed such as a Dee Gordon’s or Billy Hamilton’s.  Span is a threat to steal bases, but he’s not a speed-burner in the traditional sense.  Span could be just as effective off the bench, using his speed when necessary.  Span could fill Nate McLouth’s role.  McLouth is signed at 5 million per through 2015 with a team option for ’16.  A little redundancy is ok, and at the end of the year, McLouth can be your speed guy off the bench at a reduced rate, saving money for those looming Harper arbitration years.

As a leadoff hitter, Span has his limitations.  He doesn’t take many pitches, meaning he rarely walks, and as such his ability to reach base depends almost entirely on the talents of his batting.  In other words, he’s streaky.  Out of the 20 players currently listed on NBC Sports for NL leadoff OBP, Span is 15.  And that’s a huge improvement upon where Span was in the middle of May.  Why not just put Werth in the leadoff spot.  He takes a walk, gets on base, and he’s an aggressive base runner if not necessarily a burner?  And, while he’s working out this curious power drought, he’s still hitting singles.

Espinosa has played solidly in the field.  By dWAR (0.2) and UZR (1.3) he is above average if not the second coming of Roberto Alomar, but the simple fact is that his presence at second, and Rendon’s at third, makes the infield defense better.  By any measure, he’s the lesser of the two players offensively.  I tried to find some fancy stat that could support Espinosa as improving offensively, but there’s nothing there.  Maybe he’ll reach base a few more times with his newfound love of bunting.  We can only hope.

Is it a perfect solution?  No.  If you’re not sold on Espinosa, there’s always the trade route to consider.  For the remainder of the season, though, it’s a tenable solution, and when ’15 rolls around, you decide where Zimmerman, Span, Espinosa, et al play then.