WASHINGTON - Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals takes batting practice at Nationals Park. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)
Bryce Harper turned 19 during the 2011 playoffs. Could he be starting for a major-league team several months before he turns 20?
The Washington Nationals are trying to win now. They're also trying to win later. Both things can be true. With the exception of Edwin Jackson -- around only for the one-year deal, most likely -- the rotation is built for 2014 just as much as it is for 2012. They have youth in the lineup. And, say, that Jayson Werth guy isn't going anywhere for a while. They could have some extended success with a little luck.
And they have a secret weapon -- a 19-year-old wunderkind who could come up to the majors and explode one of these years. If we're looking at first-overall picks throughout baseball history, Bryce Harper is much closer to Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey, Jr. than he is to Bryan Bullington and Matt Bush. Harper is the archetype of a first-overall pick, a perfect mix of hype and performance. And even if the Nationals don't contend this year, he should be ready in 2013 or 2014, providing a middle-of-the-order presence as a kind of organizational cavalry.
Unless he starts the season in the majors. From Jon Heyman:
"We're take a look at him and see where he's at developmentally. If we feel he's ready to play at the major-league level, we're not going to restrict him,'' Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said by phone. "We'll be cautious yet open-minded. If he gives us the best chance to win, we'll keep an open mind and see where it takes us.''
The door is ajar, in other words. In March, Bryce Harper will get to hit against whatever pitchers other teams can scare up for the eighth innings of Grapefruit League games. They'll be the kind of pitchers that make Jamie Moyer say, "Man, that guy is still hanging around." But if Harper looks good against them, he has a chance to start for the Nationals. It's not out of the question.
There would be some logistical considerations. If the Nats weren't sold on the teenager's defense in center, Harper would either push Jayson Werth to center, or he'd take Adam LaRoche out of the lineup. Both scenarios bring different concerns. Werth in center is like something a talk-radio caller would come up with, a drastic shift that could end after a couple of clumsy-French-waiter bloopers make it obvious that Werth's home isn't in the middle of the diamond. LaRoche had a lost season last year, but he's a career .267/.337/.478 hitter. As long as you're paying the guy $8 million, you might as well see if he can duplicate those numbers.
Putting Harper straight into the lineup out of spring would require some finagling. And it wouldn't automatically be great for the team. A brief history of players who played more than 100 games in their age-19 (or younger) season:
Say, there's Edgar Renteria. It sure is weird how if you pretend that he was two or three years older when he came up, that his career arc makes complete sense. But that's just me riffing. The rest of the list is a mix of inner-circle Hall of Famers, Hall of Very Gooders, and never-weres. Tony Conigliaro always shows up on these lists to depress you, too.
Other than Conigliaro and Mel Ott, though, what you don't see in that list are many jaw-dropping seasons. You certainly don't see any embarrassing seasons -- the 19-year-olds who clearly don't belong aren't the 19-year-olds who stick around for 100 games -- but you don't see a lot of seasons that propelled their teams to pennants and titles. As a win-now move, putting Harper into the lineup isn't one with a lot of historical support.
But if this a long con, if the Nats are thinking of this as a three-year window to contend behind the young pitching, Harper has a pretty good chance of not embarrassing himself -- of being pretty darn okay. And with that, he'd gain a year of experience, making him more likely to help the Nationals as the cleanup hitter he's supposed to be in future seasons. He has a chance of not hurting the win-now philosophy behind the 2012 seasons, and of actively contributing to it beyond that.
If Harper starts in the majors at 19 and stinks it up, the bus ride to Syracuse is only seven or eight hours. Werth can slide back into a corner spot, or LaRoche can reclaim his job. If Harper holds his own, though, the Nationals might be better off in the coming seasons. It was in the age-20 seasons that A-Rod and Junior Griffey both went nuts for the first time. Harper might be poised to do the same thing.
It's probably a better idea for him to start in the minors, but if the Nationals decide to take a risk and start him in the majors, it might not be as crazy as it seems. There's a chance that he'll be perfectly acceptable, and that he wouldn't be overwhelmed the next season. If you're the Nationals, it's not a bad predicament to have.