Bryce Harper #34 of the Washington Nationals walks to the dugout after striking out to end the eleventh inning during the Nationals 5-4 win over the Atlanta Braves at Nationals Park in Washington, DC. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
1. Jayson Werth (139)
2. Tyler Moore (117)
3. Roger Bernadina (113)
4. Mike Morse (108)
5. Bryce Harper (98)
Are the Nationals playing their best outfielders, game in and game out?
As our Grant Brisbee recently pointed out, we should expected a second-half slump from the Nationals' teenager ... and that's exactly what we've gotten: Since the 12th of June, Harper's been terrible, with a .211/.277/.322 batting line. And yet he continues to play almost every day.
Nobody's really squawked much about Harper's struggles, perhaps because the Nationals have just kept on winning. But they haven't been winning because of Harper. They've been winning because of Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman, Adam LaRoche, and all that fantastic pitching (the Nationals lead the majors with a 3.23 staff ERA).
Eventually, though, shouldn't Davey Johnson's patience give out? It's nice that Harper was an All-Star and everything, but shouldn't Johnson go into the postseason with the best players he's got? They're already going to lose one of their best starting pitchers; should they also go with their fourth- or fifth-best outfielder in center field against the National League's best teams?
Moore is a 25-year-old rookie, essentially unknown before this season. Before this season, Baseball America rated Harper as the Nationals' No. 1 prospect (of course); Moore was No. 16 on that list. But beginning in 2010, Moore has done nothing but hit: Class A in '10, AA in '11, and AAA in '12 before the Nationals called him up. And he's still hitting. Turns out the guy is probably just a hitter.
Granted, Moore is not a center fielder, and not really an outfielder at all. He was almost exclusively a first baseman in the minors, and will probably be the Nationals' first baseman next year.
Roger Bernadina, on the other hand, is a center fielder. At 28, he's hardly a prospect. And he's doing much better this season than he's ever done before. In the majors, anyway. Bernadina's actually got little experience in Triple-A, but his .296/.373/.445 line at that level has always suggested he could play some in the majors.
Bernadina's probably not a particularly good center fielder, though. Harper's probably a little better than Bernadina with the glove, and probably a little better with the bat, too. Purely in terms of talent, at this exact moment.
Which doesn't mean Harper should be playing center field every day. I don't know a lot about it, but doesn't it seem possible that Harper's wearing down, between the physical and mental pressures of playing almost every day as a 19-year-old rookie? Harper bats left-handed. Bernadina bats left-handed. Wouldn't it make sense to bench Harper once or twice a week, in favor of a Bernadina? Or, with a left-hander on the mound, shift Werth to center field and get Tyler Moore into the lineup?
On balance, yes: Bryce Harper probably is one one of the Nationals' three best outfielders. Even with the fifth-best OPS+. But if the Nationals want Harper at his best in October, maybe a little more rest would help. They've got a big lead, and they've got the bodies. So why not?