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April 28, 2012

Future Shock Blog

Bryce Harper Is Up. Is This A Good Thing?

by Kevin Goldstein

I talk a lot about how impossible it is to answer the “When Is Player X coming up?” questions. It's because more often than not, even the top prospects get their first chance not because of their own performance, but because the failures or injuries of others. That was made no more apparent on Friday when Bryce Harper was called up by a Nationals team now missing two run producers in Ryan Zimmerman and Mike Morse, while the Angels finally found a way to bring up Mike Trout by flat out releasing what's left of Bobby Abreu.

For the Angels and Trout, the decision was an easy one. The signing of Albert Pujols created a series of roster complications, but this is a team designed to win right now, and it's an offense with a sub-.300 on-base guy in left field, center field and designated hitter. Mike Trout simply makes this team better when he is inserted in the lineup on Saturday. For Harper, it's not that simple. There are a number of factors that leave a open question as to whether this is a short-sighted rush job.

The need for offensive support is certainly obvious, and in a system where there are few big bats in the upper levels, Harper makes sense. In addition, it should be noted that General Manager Mike Rizzo spent time in Syracuse this week watching Harper, which makes him uniquely qualified to make a decision that even he admits is not exactly how he envisioned things when it came to Harper's big league ascension.

Still, it's a risky move for a variety of reasons. Would Harper be up if the club wasn't leading what suddenly looks like a much weaker than expected National League East? Taking advantage of a situation handed to you early in the season is both sensible and foolhardy at the same time. Flags do fly forever, and opportunities need to be pounced upon, but there are reasons to be cautious. Think about the Royals for a second. They got off to a hot start last year, called up Eric Hosmer, and turned out to be nowhere near as good as they looked. Now they stink again and suddenly they have one less year left to take advantage of Hosmer's talent. The risk of losing an arbitration year and getting Harper to free agency quicker is a potential doozy of a price for what is still a risky proposition based on just over three weeks of baseball.

And then there is Harper himself. He's unquestionably a massive talent, one who looks like a future perennial MVP candidate, but is that future now? His age (19), his career batting average (.254) and slugging percentage (.388) in the upper levels say no. Harper is going to do some amazing things immediately in the big leagues. He's going to hit a 450 foot blast at some point; he's going to gun down a runner with an incredible throw from the warning track at some point, but he's also going to make a lot of outs. He's yet to adjust to the more advanced pitching at Double- and Triple-A, especially in terms of their ability to locate and throw strikes with breaking stuff. He has the ability to make those adjustments, but he's just not experienced enough to do so yet, which now makes him both the obvious candidate for a call up, and yet not necessarily the answer the Nationals are looking for, especially with the risk of losing a year of Harper when this team will likely be better, and possibly much better than it is now.

Here's why I might just be wrong: makeup. I've written plenty about Harper's cockiness, if not downright abrasive style, but here's the thing, nobody has ever said a bad thing about his work ethic. He busts it as much as anyone on any team he's ever been on, and he is definitely capable of dealing with the expected adversity in a way that won't affect him long term. When people ask me about prospects who exceed scouting expectations, makeup is often a central piece, and Harper has that kind of makeup.

For the 2012 season only, this is a no-risk move. He's not going to be any worse than the dreadful production Washington has been getting for their left fielders, and despite the issues, there's certainly a non-zero chance that he makes an impact. The question is does the lack of Harper's impact bat down the road because he's playing somewhere else in his late 20s make it all worth it. We won't know until we see what the standings are in September, and what role Harper played in them.

 

 

Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

27 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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ThreeSix

how much does he have to play for the Nats to lose that extra year of arbitration?

Apr 27, 2012 23:08 PM
rating: 3
 
Dawsonb

Would it be better to make a trade for a guy like Snider, Brown, or even Thames/Parra/Incumbent Left Fielder? Would the value of keeping a guy like Harper around for one more year outweigh any potential asset(s) given up through trade?

Apr 28, 2012 02:01 AM
rating: 0
 
Cromulent

Interesting set of names. I'm not sure any of them would be available, and Snider and Brown potentially have their own development/adjustment issues. Why not take a chance on the now freely available Bobby Abreu?

Apr 28, 2012 04:27 AM
rating: 1
 
geoff

The analysis of the call up that I have seen so far ignores some marketing issues that I think are very relevant. This team is exciting for fans for the first time. The nationals are not built to win right now, but they are built to sell tickets right now. There is potentially a big market, if they can pull the fans. So I wonder if this is not in part a move to increase ticket sales now, with the expectation that the team will then have the money to sign Harper when he is a free agent. The potential of the market makes the situation somewhat different from, for example, the Royals, which may never be serious free-agent buyers. at the very least, I can easily see the ownership of the team having that rationale.

If Zimmerman is more hurt than suspected, that would make this move all the more wise, from a business perspective, since he is supposed to be the face of the franchise but seems to be consistently injured.

Apr 28, 2012 05:52 AM
rating: 5
 
Behemoth

I don't even understand what this means. OK, they'll sell more tickets for a few weeks. So? It's not like it will provide them with anything like enough extra revenue to sign up Harper long term.

Apr 28, 2012 09:30 AM
rating: -1
 
jrbdmb

Though the team is not in a win now mode, it *is* winning now, and to bring up someone other than Harper smacks of planning for the future when it could very well be that the future is now.

Or to put it another way, I don't think you want the GM saying that he thinks tha Nats aren't as good as their record indicatesand that he's really setting the team up for 2013 or 2014.

Apr 30, 2012 06:40 AM
rating: 0
 
SC

If Harper brings an extra 5,000 people to the ballpark 40 times this year at $40/pop, that $8 million could very well be enough revenue to make up at least some of the cost of the lost year of team control.

Especially considering that the Nats have a lot of room to grow attendance, they desperately need to figure out a way to get the ballpark above 50% capacity. It's completely plausible that Harper boosts attendance by 15% (that's only 4,000 or so).

And DC is and will always be a bandwagon town, if Harper helps get the ballpark closer to capacity, and then Nats baseball becomes the thing to do in DC, a virtuous cycle could develop.

Apr 30, 2012 07:30 AM
rating: 0
 
touchstone033

Warning: comment written based on a very small sample size.

I saw Harper play in one game in Erie, and I'm utterly convinced about the makeup factor Kevin mentioned.

During the game, Harper stole a base, slid head-first into first trying to beat out a groundball, tried to bunt for a base hit, and tried to throw out a runner tagging up from third from deep left -- and almost got him.

He played like his life was on the line. He's got serious #want. If I were to slap a comp on the makeup, I'd have to go back to Pete Rose. Harper is the kind of player who'd put a catcher in the hospital because he tried to block the plate during an All Star game.

Of course, during that game, he had only one hit, a come-backer through the box, and he looked absolutely silly swinging at breaking stuff down and away in the dirt thrown to him by Drew Smyly...so there's that, too.

But then that's just one game.

Apr 28, 2012 06:40 AM
rating: 3
 
Behemoth

Unsure that #want can make someone who hasn't mashed at either AA or AAA into an instant above average major leaguer though.

Apr 28, 2012 09:32 AM
rating: 0
 
touchstone033

Totally agree.

I didn't mean to imply the #want makes him MLB-ready. In fact, he did some stupid things trying to win the game single-handedly. Sliding into first? I'm sure he got a good talking-to after that one. His throw from left sailed over the cutoff man, too. There must have been a runner on first, because I remember being both awed by the throw, and shaking my head at its audacity...

Apr 28, 2012 09:38 AM
rating: 2
 
Jivas
(649)

In all seriousness: cool story, bro.

Apr 28, 2012 11:40 AM
rating: 0
 
BuzzingThalami

So what I'm hearing is that Harper is a season-ending injury continually waiting to happen. That's not what I want to hear as a Nats fan. I'm probably an outlier, but I prefer my star players giving it 95% 100% of the time rather than 110% 75% of the time. It's a better bottom line, IMO.

I realize that makes me a heretic, but so be it.

Apr 28, 2012 14:54 PM
rating: 2
 
RaysProf

"During the game, Harper stole a base, slid head-first into first trying to beat out a groundball..."

Hopefully they teach him that sliding slows down the runner and increases the chance of injury.

Apr 29, 2012 13:27 PM
rating: 0
 
mrkeena

Kevin -- how does this move get Harper to free agency a year earlier (i.e., prior to after the 2018 season)? He has spent the requisite 20 days on optional assignment in the minors already, thus he cannot accumulate the 172 days required for a full year.

I get that Harper will get super two status following the 2014 season (which wouldn't have happened if they kept him down until mid to late June), but doesn't that just make him arbitration-eligible four times now instead of three?

I don't see how the Nats will lose a year of control under this scenario. I'm pretty sure Verducci explained something similar on MLB Network last night.

Please let me know if I'm misunderstanding something. Thanks.

Apr 28, 2012 07:40 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Kevin Goldstein
BP staff

I'm saying he's 19 and Even AA to AAA this year would have been WAY ahead of schedule and the overall rush job has cost them a year.

Apr 28, 2012 10:17 AM
 
SaberTJ

You beat me to the punch.

Apr 28, 2012 10:31 AM
rating: 0
 
SaberTJ

You are correct. Super Two Status means he will have 4 years of arbitration instead of the normal three.

Only thing I think we could be missing (I could be way off here) is when Harper will reach a full year's worth of service time. If Harper were called up in late June would he not in reality take 3.5 seasons before he'd be arbitration eligible?

For instance, if Harper were to be called up in the summer and only accumulate a half a season of service time. Does it not then take until the summer of 2-15 before he's reached 3 years of service time? Thus giving the Nationals that additional year of service time Kevin speaks of?

Apr 28, 2012 10:25 AM
rating: 0
 
SaberTJ

2-15 should say 2015*

Apr 28, 2012 10:26 AM
rating: 0
 
BarryR

It was bad enough to have a lineup without Morse. A lineup without Morse and Zimmerman was too much to bear. So they're hoping for a miracle, which is what Harper being a middle of the lineup hitter would certainly be. He is 19 years old. Here is a quiz: name all the 19 year-olds who have had a triple slash line of .270/10/60 - which is hardly the stuff of a cleanup hitter. Here's the list: Mel Ott.
Now I cheated a little by choosing 60 RBI, since Tony Conigliaro only drove in 52 with his incredible 24 HR at 19. But the fact remains that only 5 players in history had as many 10 HR at age 19 - Conigliario 24, Ott 18, Griffey Jr. 16, Mantle 13, and Kranepool (yes, Kranepool) 10. Yount, Kaline, and Staub had over 500 AB at 19 and didn't do it. ARod hit 5 in 142 AB, but with a line of .232/.264/.408. Jimmy Foxx hit just 3 in 130 AB.
To some extent, a 19 year-old in the major leagues is like a talking dog - it's not what he says so much as the ability to say anything.

Apr 28, 2012 13:47 PM
rating: 5
 
BuzzingThalami

Hey, if the Rockies can stupidly rush Wilin Rosario beyond his demonstrated readiness, wasting service and developmental time, why shouldn't the Nats feel entitled to act unwisely too?

Apr 28, 2012 14:49 PM
rating: 0
 
nigelcones

couldn't they just call up Corey Brown? not a sexy move, but at least he's proven against upper-level pitching, can play CF in a pinch, and has some power. Getting old, too, so it's not like you're going to be wasting service time

Apr 28, 2012 14:55 PM
rating: 0
 
nigelcones

or go after some other spare OF with some project potential? Jermaine Mitchell, Jeremy Moore, I still like Rene Tosoni as a project who has been rushed/struggled with injuries

Apr 28, 2012 15:05 PM
rating: 0
 
monkey

Putting aside whether or not he has been rushed, if Harper turns out to be as good as advertised, he will hit the free agent market at 25. What kind of contract is he looking at? A-Rod money? More years/money? It seems with the large tv deals becoming more common he could command a large sum of money on the market

Apr 28, 2012 16:54 PM
rating: 0
 
kcshankd

I don't think the Royals thought Hosmer was going to help them when the Central. He was hitting 439/525/582 after 26 AAA games. He was ready. Harper, not so much.

Apr 28, 2012 19:35 PM
rating: 0
 
kcshankd

Ouch, 'win'.

Apr 28, 2012 19:36 PM
rating: 0
 
MikeMcD

What about Tyler Moore the other kid just called up. He's crushing AAA and has, in a limited sample obviously, tightened up his plate discipline which his 2012 Annual writeup said was holding him back. And I see they stuck him in the outfield today, a position he has barely played. If he's ready might he be the guy to to boost Washington's offence? A big 'if' I know but readier right now than is Harper?

Apr 29, 2012 18:27 PM
rating: 0
 
jrbdmb

Two things. First, there's no reason Harper can't be sent back down once Morse and/or Zimm return, unless he's playing out of his mind.

Second, I'm confused by Bryce's player card ... the PECOTA 2012 Weighted Mean Forecast shows 238 PAs, while the projection at the top of the card shows 463 PAs and about double for all the counting stats. Why the disparity?

Apr 30, 2012 06:48 AM
rating: 0
 
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