Bryce Harper finally made his long-awaited return to the Washington Nationals on Monday night, after a wildly successful rehab stint down in the minors. It didn’t take long, though, for him to make waves with his comments, as he (somewhat subtly) criticized the lineup that was rolled out by manager Matt Williams.
Now, the Nats have managed to hang around in the National League East, sitting only a half game out of the division lead heading into Monday’s action. Their success* (*read: ability to continue to float just above .500) has come despite Harper having less than 100 plate appearances on the year, due to injury. That didn’t stop him from voicing his displeasure with the starting nine in his return.
Washington came out with a lineup that featured Harper in left field, Ryan Zimmerman at third, Anthony Rendon at second base, and Denard Span in center. If it were up to Harper, though, he’d shift over to center, have Zimmerman next to him in left, Rendon at third, and Danny Espinosa, who was relegated to the bench in Harper’s return, back in at second base. What such a setup would mean for Denard Span remains to be seen.
So does Harper have a point in declaring his desire for what the Nationals’ lineup should look like? In short, no. In even shorter, hell no. In fact, any credibility Bryce Harper had in throwing out his choice of lineup goes out the window when he suggests that Espinosa represents one of the best second basemen in baseball. While Espinosa has been better recently, he’s still reaching base at a clip of .284 and has a 0.3 WAR for the year. He’s also coming off a year in which his WAR was in the negative. At this point, he’s the only Nats position player that looks to be firmly on the trade block heading into July.
But let’s look a little deeper. Espinosa’s not very good. But what about the rest of Harper’s setup? Rendon has a hot bat, but from a fielding perspective, he’s much, much better off at second base than at third. While Zimmerman’s fielding has been of a higher quality when he’s in the outfield, the omission of Denard Span makes it a necessary spot for him. Span represents the prototypical leadoff guy and a source of outstanding defense in center. Having Harper in left is simply the best situation for the Nationals.
At the end of the day, the discussion is only going to be relevant because it’s Bryce Harper. Harper has caught flak in the past for his attitude, and occasional lack of hustle, with this appearing to be another example of the former. Nothing will likely come of this, but there’s little doubt that the way Matt Williams has it set up is the way Washington should proceed.