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