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.