Just as important, if Harper can play center adequately, then he instantly becomes a much more valuable player. Whatever Harper’s normal offensive stats ultimately prove to be, they’ll carry more weight in center field, where power and run production are harder to find than at corner outfield spots. In the future, the Nats could build a team with three power bats in their outfield.
Can it work? It sure has in the past.
After the 1995 season, Davey Johnson took over the Orioles, for whom Brady Anderson, 32, had started 85 percent of his games in left field the previous four years. Johnson thought he’d spotted something — a hidden center fielder. Anderson was a body-builder with speed, but he seldom got his best jumps in left field. Reading the ball off the bat is easier in center.
So the Orioles traded lame-hitting center fielder Curtis Goodwin for southpaw David Wells and made Anderson a 100 percent center fielder. How’d it work out?
“Brady hit 50 homers the first year,” said Johnson dryly on Tuesday. Anderson also became a more aggressive, confident outfielder, making back-to-back all-star teams in center field in Davey’s two years as manager.
If some teams took such a radical risk with a player as talented as Harper, I’d smell a rat. Two years ago, Harper was a catcher. What’s he doing in center field? Are the Nats so desperate to fill a position of need that they are willing to put even more pressure on Harper, who hit only .256 in a half season in AA last year and now is being accelerated to AAA based on little more than a strong month in the Arizona Fall League? Doesn’t Harper have enough on his plate learning to hit southpaws and junk ballers? Now you want him in a semi-new spot, maybe in a September postseason race?
Besides, he’s 19, crazy gung-ho and plays like Pete Rose far more than Mickey Mantle. He can run into enough walls and teammates in right field. Why put him in center with more responsibility and maybe more danger? No, son, run to the wall, not through the wall. We want you around a while.
However, in light of Johnson’s and General Manager Mike Rizzo’s backgrounds — they view themselves as lifers who pride themselves on evaluating talent and developing it properly — some benefit of the doubt is due. This wasn’t done lightly. The Nats already switched Harper from catcher to outfield to save his legs and maximize his career as a hitter. Right field was the logical first stop for his big arm. But nobody ever said it was the last stop.