WASHINGTON -- There has been a lot of chatter lately about how Bryce Harper has created a problem for the Nationals with his recent comments about how he should be playing center field. The real problem isn't what Harper said, though -- it's that he's right.
In 2012, the Nationals were the best team in baseball, despite a starting outfield that -- when healthy -- was composed of Michael Morse in left, Bryce Harper in center and Jayson Werth in right. Morse's defense was so bad that it effectively washed out the positives of his offense, based on his Wins Above Replacement (WAR). Harper started 86 games in center that year and performed well, posting a range factor only slightly below Denard Span's career marks. He also has an arm that can do things Span's cannot.
Ryan Zimmerman is being tried out again at third base, but that brings many questions about his surgically repaired shoulder back into play. It also pushes Anthony Rendon back to second, where he is less effective. Zimmerman, meanwhile, has acquitted himself well over 25 games in left field, proving that his athleticism still translates across positions. The Nationals seem better positioned with Zimmerman in left field and Rendon at third, meaning Harper would shift to center.
Which brings us to the real point: Span is a terrific defensive player, and by all accounts a great teammate. He participates in community programs such as the Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy and is an African-American role model for D.C. baseball in a sport increasingly devoid of black players.
But he's not a leadoff hitter on a championship-caliber team.
Span's on-base percentage sits at just .316 entering play Friday, which would be the lowest of his professional career.
Since coming to the Nationals, he has posted a slash line of just .274/.323/.382 in over 1,000 plate appearances, posting an OPS+ of just 95. The Washington Post ran a piece that suggests an optimized lineup would have Span hitting ninth, behind the pitcher. If that's the case, the Nationals desperately need someone else in his stead.
That would require a major concession on the part of one man, and it's not manager Matt Williams. Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo coveted Span for several years before finally acquiring him in a trade that sent promising young arm Alex Meyer to Minnesota. Giving up on Span would mean admitting the experiment did not work out as planned. But the smart move would be to trade him while he still has value.
The Nationals already have Nate McLouth as a backup center fielder who can come in late on defense. His struggles at the plate make him a less attractive a trade candidate than Span, whose $9 million 2015 option as a starter appears more valuable than McLouth's guaranteed $5.75 million ($5 million in ‘15, $6.5 million option with a $750k buyout for '16) for a bench player.
Ben Zobrist could be the answer to many of the Nationals questions. (Getty Images/Mike Carlson)
The one part Harper got wrong is Danny Espinosa, at least against righties. He plays an excellent defensive second base and can be used at shortstop and third as a defensive replacement or in case of injury. And while he's slashing .277/.365/.462 (much better than Span) against lefties, he's batting just .196/.253/.307 against right-handed pitching. Espinosa's career K rate of 28.2 percent is the 21st-worst mark in the history of Major League Baseball among batters with at least 1,500 plate appearances, and has risen to 38.7 percent against righties this year.
The best option is not an internal one, but it comes at the position which has been the real root of the issue for several years, second base. A solution has also become eminently available as the Tampa Bay Rays have surprisingly underachieved and fallen out of contention.
Ben Zobrist is having a subpar year by his standards, but the two-time All-Star offers the Nationals an answer to many of their questions. He owns a career OPS+ of 116 and can play second base, shortstop, and either corner outfield spot, giving Washington insurance for minor injuries to Zimmerman or Werth. He walks nearly as much as he strikes out and is a veteran of four postseason runs. He also has an affordable $7.5 million option for next year with a very reasonable $500k buyout.
The Rays have Desmond Jennings in center field, so if the Nationals were to move Span as part of a Zobrist trade, they may need to involve a third team. But the Rays have been recent trade partners before (see: Jose Lobaton for Nathan Karns) and Rizzo has swung multi-team deals in the past (see: the Oakland/Seattle Morse trade).
He's not a household name, but Zobrist's 34.4 WAR since 2009 ranks third in all of the Major Leagues, behind only Miguel Cabrera and Robinson Cano. The last high- WAR, low profile player the Nationals acquired was Doug Fister, and we've all seen how well that's worked out to date.
Zobrist could lead off, or Rendon could move up, leaving the veteran to hit second, fifth, seventh, or wherever Williams prefers to slot him in. A move to a better offense (Tampa Bay has scored just 3.77 runs/game in the AL, compared to the Nats' 4.07 without a DH) couldn't hurt Zobrist's chances of seeing better pitches and upping his productivity towards his career norms no matter where he hits.
With Zobrist in tow, the entire lineup becomes better and deeper. And if the Nationals want to put their best foot forward and achieve their championship aspirations, that lineup includes Harper back in center field, right where he correctly thinks he should be.
© 2014 WTOP. All Rights Reserved.