Posted on 22 June 2012.
If you talk to any established Major League catchers, you’ll find that they are not lacking in brain power – meaning, they’re generally smart guys – and if you don’t have the brains, you probably won’t have a career behind the plate. Catchers who aren’t up to snuff generally find themselves moved to another position (if they can hit) or unemployed. Learning how to manage a roster of very different personalities, prepare for an ever-changing list of opponents, and still progress offensively is a brutal job that few are equipped to handle. For these reasons, the catcher’s position is the toughest to groom for success, and when you have a Minor League star in this position, a team will make sure he gets all the help he needs. This is how the Nationals screwed Bryce Harper.
Bryce Harper is the best MLB-ready high school prospect since Ken Griffey Jr. Just like Griffey, Harper is a gifted left-handed hitter with Hall of Fame offensive potential. What is shocking is that Harper was a catcher. His above-average arm made him impossible to run against, and his instincts when it came to managing a field of guys were phenomenal. Harper was a natural behind the plate, but his bat was causing an issue. Despite high-level defensive skills as a catcher, his offense made him too valuable to catch. The chance of injury and reduced offensive performance would increase exponentially if he remained at catcher. His future could be curtailed by a home plate collision, an errant pitch or a foul tip. Harper wasn’t given the chance to fulfill his catching promise; he would have to try to make a career someplace else.
Harper’s athletic ability gives him options all around the diamond. He could be a first baseman, but it would be a waste of his speed and his arm. Third base would be a good option except the Nationals have a young franchise cornerstone in Ryan Zimmerman. Harper could shift to the outfield, as he has the skills to play any of the three positions. This decision is where Harper’s career could potentially go off-track.
Since Harper was a natural, and great catchers are always in demand, why not give him some time behind the plate? This would benefit both parties: the Nationals would gain roster and lineup options with Harper’s ability to catch – even if just a few times per year. Allowing Harper the chance to catch would give him options throughout his career. If his offensive skills weren’t up to par, he could still fall back on his catching ability and still be an above-average offensive backstop. The Nationals do have a franchise catcher in Wilson Ramos, but in the last nine months he was kidnapped and shredded his ACL (possibly the worst year for any player in baseball…ever). Would extra depth be a bad thing?
Giving Bryce Harper a chance to catch despite his lofty career status does have precedence. Phil Nevin was the top overall pick in the 1992 MLB Draft by the Houston Astros, a true offensive machine. Nevin was an average third baseman, but his ability to hit with immense power made him a star in the making. Nevin’s career trajectory failed to launch as fast as expected, and by 1995 he was volunteering to catch as a way to keep his career afloat. After some initial struggles, Nevin debuted in the Majors in 1996. In four years, Nevin earned part-time playing time until his break-out year in 1999. Nevin finally displayed the talent and skills that made him the first overall pick. From 1999-2001 he averaged 32 homers and hit over .300 in two of three years. Over the rest of his career, Nevin’s ability to catch gave him an advantage due to his versatility. Most teams don’t want to keep three catchers on the roster, but a third person in another position who can catch is a massive advantage.
Are the Nationals being cautious or selfish? You don’t want to delay Harper’s trip to the big leagues by having him spend more time in the minors, but is the short-term gain worth the potential for greater long-term reward? The Nationals are one of the youngest teams in Major League Baseball, but are also serious playoff contenders. They have one of the best rotations in baseball, and pitching wins titles. Their offense is greatly improved with Harper’s bat, but it still might not be good enough. The two players with the highest batting averages on the team are starting pitchers – never a recipe for success. The Nationals need another major bat – something they won’t find in the current trade market. If they focused on next year, they would have their starting catcher back, a more mature pitching staff, and the chance to add another bat or two. Although nobody wants to put off winning, it takes a smart front office to look at the big picture. That is what the Nationals need to do with Bryce Harper – look at the big picture – all through the bars of a catcher’s mask.