Bryce Harper is right, of course, but that's not the point.
On Monday night, Harper was back in the lineup for the first time since April 25th. Before his first trip to the plate, he'd come up with some ideas about how to better manage the Washington Nationals. Speaking with reporters before the game, Harper was asked what he thought about Ryan Zimmerman playing left field -- as he had in Harper's absence. "I think it's great. I think he should be playing left," Harper said.
Then he was asked what he thought about Zimmerman going back to third base now that the 21-year-old outfielder had returned. One thing led to another, and eventually Harper was on the record with all of the following complaints about manager Matt Williams' lineup changes:
"Rendon's a good third baseman. He should be playing third. We've got one of the best second basemen in the league in Danny Espinosa. Of course, we want the best-hitting lineup in there. I think Rendon playing third and Zim playing left is something that would be good for this team. I think that should be what's happening…. I'm in the lineup. That's all that matters. If I had the lineup, it would maybe not be the same. He's got the lineup card. He's got the pen. That's what he's doing. So there's nothing I can do about it. I'm hitting sixth tonight. Hopefully I can be able to get some runners on base in front of me and get some protection and hopefully get some knocks."
The general reaction to these comments has been an elementary-school-esque "ooooh." All eyes turned to incumbent Nationals centerfielder Denard Span, who would lose his starting job to Harper in center were Harper's suggestions put into action. Span took the high road before Tuesday's game; despite pointedly mentioning that this was the first time in his career someone else in his locker room had gone to the press to make comments about him, he said Harper is "still one of my teammates."
Here's the thing, though: This isn't really about Bryce Harper vs. Denard Span. This is about Bryce Harper vs. Matt Williams. Harper, foolishly or not, is approaching the game the same way front office guys approach it -- with an unsentimental focus on winning. The source of his concern isn't the specific abilities of Denard Span, centerfielder; it's a fielding and lineup arrangement he thinks is suboptimal. When a front office designates a player for assignment, like the Houston Astros did with Jerome Williams late Monday, no one immediately starts assuming bad blood. (Williams tweeted out his thanks to the organization for his time there after the move, because he understood it was a business move, not a personal judgment.)
Harper didn't mention Span by name, or even himself by name. He left it unclear who would be playing centerfield, in fact -- he never even mentioned the position -- and left it up to the media to make the logical leap that he thought he should be playing over Span. It's not the "I should be in center over this guy" quote a lot of people want it to be. It ties directly into the second part of Harper's comments about the lineup: Harper is annoyed because he doesn't think manager Matt Williams is doing the right things to help the Washington Nationals win as a team.
There's a self-serving, arrogant nature to the comments, of course -- at the very least, Harper is clearly annoyed about how low he is in the batting order, and would like to be hitting higher -- but it's hard to argue with his premises. (One exception: "[W]e've got one of the best second basemen in the league in Danny Espinosa," which requires you to mentally insert the word "defensive" in there in order to justify. To be fair to Harper, the next sentence in his quote implies that he was praising Espinosa's defense and recognizing there needs to be a balance between hitting and fielding.)
Harper's right: Ryan Zimmerman should be in left field, not at third base, because he can't properly field the position anymore. He simply can no longer make the throws to first base that are required from someone manning the hot corner. In a widely-circulated highlight from Monday night's game, Zimmerman turns a double play from third base by catching a line drive and then doubling up a runner who was unwisely moving on contact. He gets over-the-top praise from Nationals color commentator F.P. Santangelo about how amazing the play is, and it is indeed a nice reaction and catch -- but Zimmerman's throw to first one-hops to the bag, bouncing almost fifteen feet in front of first baseman Adam LaRoche on the infield grass. Zimmerman is standing on the fair side of third base, on the infield dirt, sets both his feet, and tomahawks the ball into the ground. This is not an isolated incident; this is what Ryan Zimmerman does at third now.
And Harper's right again: Rendon should be at third base, because he has the arm to make not only that throw, but every other one you might expect from a third baseman. It's his natural position, and his bat is good enough to carry any position on the field where the Nationals might want to play him. As much as Zimmerman's bat needs to be somewhere in the lineup, so does Rendon's.
The unspoken fallout of moving Zimmerman to left and Rendon to third is having to make a decision about whether to play Bryce Harper or Denard Span in centerfield. But that's not really a decision at all: Span is a .705 OPS hitter over the last two years who does not add value defensively in centerfield, while Harper is an .841 OPS hitter over that period of time who is almost a decade younger and can handle the position just as well, if not better. Span could be a free agent as early as this offseason if the Nationals decline his $9 million team option; meanwhile, Harper, Zimmerman and Rendon are likely to be on this team through the end of the decade. If there's an odd man out here, it's clearly Span. It's so clearly Span that Harper doesn't even need to say it.
The only real question, then, is whether or not the drop-off in offense from Span to second baseman Danny Espinosa is worth the major defensive upgrades at second and third base that come from moving Zimmerman and Rendon around. Espinosa is by no means a good offensive player -- from 2012 to present, he's put up a .657 OPS at the plate, and he only appeared in 44 games last year due to injury. But the drop-off in value from a ~.700 OPS neutral defender in centerfield to a ~.650 OPS plus defender at second base is not a huge one, if there's a drop-off at all. The only question is whether or not Espinosa is still a plus defender after his injuries, and that's something that can only really be answered by regular playing time. Even if Espinosa is just a neutral defender now at second base, however, the gains elsewhere on the diamond are great enough to outweigh the hit -- and there's nothing stopping the Nationals from trying to upgrade at 2B at the trade deadline, as Espinosa is easy enough to replace.
So the substance of Harper's comments is correct, in baseball terms. The problem is what it usually is when it comes to media furor over something a young player has said: how it was expressed, or in this case, the fact that it was expressed at all. Major League Baseball is a professional sport, and it has definite ideas about the level of professionalism expected from its players. Professionalism is a funny concept if you stand back and take a hard look at it; it has nothing to do with the quality of one's work, and everything to do with how one goes about it. It is essentially a modern replacement for what people used to signify when they talked about someone's "breeding." And the modern concept of professionalism in baseball doesn't include young players talking to the press about how the lineup card is filled out, regardless of whether or not their comments have merit.
It's unlikely that Harper meant to slight Williams in the way that talking to the media about lineup strategy is perceived as a slight these days. He was asked his thoughts about where players should play on the field, and he answered them with his honest opinions. Now he's being punished by the same media machine that solicited those opinions in the first place. Williams, for his part, responded with exemplary professionalism, saying before Tuesday night's game:
"Oh, I talked to Bryce, certainly. And I got to let you guys know something: I got Bryce's back in every way. That will not change. I want him to play every day, and I want him to play the way Bryce knows how to play. He's going to hit in different spots in the lineup, and he's okay with that. And he's going to play in different spots in the outfield, and he's okay with that, too. I know there's a lot made of it, and there's a lot of discussion about it. But he and I are good. There's no rift. We have a conversation every day. I got his back, and I support him all the way. I'm happy to write his name in the lineup every single day. Who wouldn't be?"
That is the response every manager should have to a situation like this, and it might be the first thing Matt Williams has said or done all season that gives me confidence about his future in the league as a manager of a first-division team. Navigating the muddy waters of professionalism is an essential skill for every successful big-league manager, as is knowing that the young guys who play the game aren't necessarily going to be able to do the same. It's the manager's job to both cover for them and help fix whatever problems they've blundered into with the press. Matt Williams has handled the situation exceptionally so far, and has given every impression that he will continue to do so.
And who knows, maybe he'll give the lineup another look as well.