Washington Nationals Opinions: Bryce Harper Should Replace Denard Span In Center

brandonconner
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With Denard Span’s injury, which will require that he miss significant time including some regular season games, the Nationals found themselves without the anchor of their outfield and the leadoff man who was such an integral part of their late season success in 2014. It was far from an insignificant loss, and questions quickly arose about who would be the one to replace him.

The Nationals answered those questions quickly. Almost as soon as the news broke of Span’s injury, the team announced that their center fielder pro tempore would be Michael Taylor, the 23 year old prospect who spent 17 games with the team last September.

The move was hardly a surprising one because, from a long-term perspective, it makes a lot of sense. After all, you’re projecting Taylor to be your starting center fielder in the near future. Given Span’s age and contract, which expires after 2015, Taylor is likely the leading candidate to be the Opening Day center fielder in 2016. All signs indicate that the organization is grooming Taylor to be the replacement when they move on from Span.

This is all well and good for Rizzo’s plans of making the Nationals relevant for years to come, but in the short term? Making Michael Taylor actually might do more harm than good to him and the organization.

Admittedly, last year was a limited sample size, but Taylor has proven that he needs a little more time in the minors before he’s ready to face major league pitching. Taylor hit just .205/.279/.359 in 2014, and so far this spring, he’s hitting only .250/.250/.536, including a four strikeout game against the Tigers just this Thursday.

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There’s no doubt Taylor has promising defensive range, but it isn’t enough to outweigh the risk you’re taking by plugging him into the lineup, and the Nationals offense loses its efficacy by putting Taylor at the plate day-in and day-out before he’s really ready. It compromises the entire lineup now, and, in the long run, it could wind up stunting Taylor’s future growth. The team would be much better served replacing Span’s offensive production with one of the healthy veterans still on the roster.

But if Taylor isn’t the right choice to fill in during Span’s recovery, who is? The answer, of course, is Bryce Harper.

It’s already been made abundantly clear by Harper than center field is the position that he wants to play. Just last season, as he was returning from his thumb injury, Harper even went as far as to throw Denard Span under the bus when he implied that he should be the one manning the prime outfield position. More than once he’s told the media how much he loves the position. With Denard Span out, it only makes sense to give Harper what he wants, and there’s much more to it than just making him happy.

While it may not necessarily be stated, the fact is that center field is one of the “glamour” positions in baseball. It’s the quarterback of the outfield, the premier position of the three, and there’s a certain prestige that goes with playing that spot. Willie Mays, Ken Griffey, Jr., Mickey Mantle and countless others have attached their name to that position. When you really think about it, it’s really no wonder that Bryce wants the same sort of opportunity that those players had to put their mark on a team.

And the fact is, if the Nationals really want Bryce Harper to stick around long enough to live up to the lofty expectations heaped upon him, they’re going to have to give him that opportunity. Before long, Harper will be eligible to hit free agency (his agent, Scott Boras, will be sure to make sure he hits the open market before signing a long term deal), and a team like the Yankees or Dodgers, with more than enough financial resources, could use that as a bargaining chip if the Nationals never give Bryce a fair shot at playing the position he so obviously covets. Why not at least give him something of a trial run while Denard Span is out?

There certainly can’t be any more risk than putting Michael Taylor in center. For one thing, it’s hard to see Harper being bad in center. He’s more than serviceable defensively at the position. Based on the FanGraphs numbers, Harper posted positive, if not otherworldly, defensive grades in center both in 2012 and 2013.

The 2012 numbers are probably the most relevant, since that season was the one in which Harper spent the most time in center. Over the 715 innings he played there, he racked up a UZR/150 of 19.1, a score easily higher than his score in left field during 2014. He’s got range, and his brief time in right during spring training is proof that he’s got the sort of cannon that can throw runners out from anywhere on the field.

There’s also the health aspect to consider. Regardless of Bryce’s statements to the contrary, he has shown a tendency to be injury prone, particularly when he decides to go one-on-one with the outfield wall. Center field immediately reduces the risk of Harper playing himself onto the disabled list on a warning track shot. To put it succinctly, less wall means less chance for Harper to run into it, which means less chance for Harper to miss time and derail what is, hopefully, his coming-out party of a season.

Watching Harper, it’s readily apparent that his game is all about confidence, swagger, and his pure desire to be the best player on the field. Giving him the opportunity to play center field – the position Bryce thinks of as his position – could pay off big both now and in the long run, and that’s reason enough for the Nationals to choose Harper rather than going with the “safe” choice in Michael Taylor.

Give Harper what he wants, and he’ll be backing up his World Series talk in no time.

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