The Harper case is easy. Get off the kid’s back. His puckered lips were bush. But that’s why 18-year-olds go to Class A ball, to get bush league out of their system.
Still, Harper’s smooch was a true rite-of-passage baseball tale. On Sunday, the Greensboro Grasshoppers drilled Harper in the knee with a pitch in the first inning, forcing him to wallow around and hop out of the game.
“There’s bad blood between the teams,” Washington Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said. Harper, back in the lineup, fanned on Monday and got razzed. Yes, chirpy grasshoppers. Next time up, he smashed a ball off the pitcher for an infield single — a textbook payback. “There was a lot of mouthing off all game,” Rizzo said. Third time up, “Harper hit one 480 feet. He gave it a slow trot. The pitcher cussed him all around the bases,” Rizzo said.
Decision time: Do nothing, blow a kiss or start a brawl. Bryce went lover, not fighter.
“After Harper stepped on home plate, if he’d charged the mound and punched the kid in the head, that would have made it a perfect day for me,” one Nats scout said. That’s easy hyperbole from an ex-player. Everybody was Thor back in his day. What if Harper breaks half the bones in his hand? Does that make your day?
Mike Schmidt took the majority position on ESPN. “Bryce, if you’re going to hit a lot of ’em, you’d better learn not to show up the pitcher,” he said. “The game [will] figure out a way to police this young man, if his manager won’t.” Meaning knockdowns, etc.
Schmidt’s mostly right. Harper will learn. There’s always payback, no exceptions. Long ago, Reggie Jackson yelled at Dock Ellis, “Hit me,” instead of one of his mates. So, Dock did, right in the face with a fastball. The outline of Reggie’s smashed glasses circled one eye. “I don’t think Reggie is going to yell that again,” one of Reggie’s Orioles teammates said.
Harper had it two-thirds correct. He hit the pitcher with a liner, then hit the longest ball they’d ever seen. A chapter of his mythology was written. He just had to finish it by running the bases normally, but maybe look a little bored. Then, instead of hating you or getting revenge, those pesky Grasshoppers are stuck with fearing you and admiring you. And all the game’s unwritten rules, which no one can change, flip and are on your side.
Now for the tough call: Rendon, the Nats’ first-round sixth-overall pick in Monday’s draft. In 2010, the Rice third baseman, now 21, was the national player of the year. Many compared him to others who’d won the award, like Mark Teixeira. In two years and 124 games, Rendon hit .391 with 46 homers and 157 RBI. He’d pass Lance Berkman as Rice’s best. He was the consensus pick to follow Stephen Strasburg and Harper as a number one overall pick.
Then, last summer playing for Team USA, he snapped his ankle putting on the brakes rounding first base. There’s tape. Gruesome. His second ankle surgery. Speed was already his worst tool. This season, a shoulder injury held him to six games at third base. Rest would cure it. But that might kill his draft stock. So, show ’em you can still hit.
Rendon did, sort of. Colleges switched to less lively bats this year; they act more like wood. Homers dropped 40 percent. Rendon fell from 26 to six. At 6 feet, 190 pounds, did he just have warning track power? His on-base percentage remained solid at .520, but who cares if you walk 80 times in 63 games?
Two views emerged. To optimists, his ankle seemed fine, so his shoulder would heal, too. Then he’d be a good-glove, on-base machine instantly and a total-base maniac eventually like Edgar Martinez, who broke in at 6 feet, 175, or Kevin Youkilis. To a few pessimists, he was injury-prone, undersize and might be a pure waste with a top pick.
Before Monday’s draft, ex-Nats GM Jim Bowden blogged that the Pirates should take Rendon with the first overall pick because 1) he was great, 2) hurt hitters heal and 3) top-five-pick pitchers almost never pan out. Baseball America had Rendon at No. 1. Almost everybody else had him going at No. 2 to Seattle. The idea that the same team that got both Strasburg and Harper might also get Rendon was not even considered.
Then he dropped. And dropped. The stunned Nats were delighted. “Some scouting directors make the mistake of ‘what have you done lately’ instead of looking at the whole body of work,” said Rizzo, praising personnel head Roy Clark, who tried to nab Rendon for Atlanta out of high school by offering second-round money after a 27th-round pick.
“Don’t tell me, ‘You only took him because you couldn’t pass on [the big name].’ Plenty of teams have passed on situations like that. It takes a certain type of owner, GM and scouting staff — with some quality of guts — to make that decision,” Rizzo said.
For example, the Padres, with the top pick in ’04, passed on Jered Weaver and Stephen Drew, who fell to No. 12 and 15, because of injury or “signability” issues. Instead, they took local favorite Matt Bush, a San Diego schoolboy shortstop without red flags. Today, he’s in Class AA as a reliever in the Rays system. The Diamondacks, with Rizzo, took Drew, now one of the majors’ best shortstops.
When grading GMs, revisit their old draft-day quotes. Bowden took Ross Detwiler with the sixth pick in ’07 and said he’d fit well “in a postseason rotation.” Now, Rizzo has pushed a stack of reputation chips on Rendon. The injuries? “No effect” long term. “Hitters return to form.” His position? Slick at third but, don’t worry, hitters always play.
Watch clips of a hundred compact quick-wrist Rendon swings and tape of him at third and you can think “a big leaguer but not an impact player.” Or you can flash on bad body Bill Madlock, 5 feet 11, with four batting titles. Some people are just born to hit.
Don’t fret over Harper. Instead, cross your fingers for Rendon. The history of high-pick hitters taken at Nos. 5, 6 and 7 overall tends toward melodramatically extreme outcomes. You get Derek Jeter, Gary Sheffield, Barry Bonds, Troy Tulowitzki, Frank Thomas, Prince Fielder, Nick Markakis, Buster Posey, Vernon Wells, Matt Wieters, J.D. Drew, Ryan Braun or Teixeira. Or, with somewhat greater frequency, you get a flop.
The Nats just got a star. Or they got nothing at all.