Bryce Harper’s mouth makes Matt Williams’ job as Nationals manager even tougher

The Post Sports Live crew debates whether Bryce Harper's comments about manager Matt Williams's lineup are potentially damaging for a team that just got back to full strength on Monday. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)
Jason Reid
Columnist July 2

It’s not surprising that first-year Washington Nationals Manager Matt Williams has been supportive of outfielder Bryce Harper, who erred the other day by revealing his opinion about the lineup. Although Williams would rather not have his decisions questioned, especially by the youngest player on the team, he knows criticizing Harper would only increase scrutiny. For the Nationals, Harper’s comments already have received too much attention.

By offering changes he would make if he were in Williams’s position — among other things, Harper implied he should play center field instead of Denard Span — the third-year player has put the club’s manager and his teammates in a difficult position. When the 21-year-old face of the franchise intimates there’s a better way for the manager to do his job, it’s reasonable for Nationals observers to analyze Williams’s moves more closely. And if players who Harper apparently believes are being used incorrectly struggle, fans may start to wonder whether Harper got it right. That’s not how you build confidence in an organization.

Jason Reid is a sports columnist with the Washington Post. He joined the Post’s Redskins team in 2007 after 15 years covering many beats at the Los Angeles Times. View Archive

The Nationals will face plenty of hurdles during the grind of the season — Harper’s mouth may have created more. Williams potentially faces the biggest challenge.

From the opening pitch of spring training, it has been clear who runs the Nationals on the field. Williams’s hands-on style became evident early in the season while he moved Harper throughout the batting order during the outfielder’s slow start. On April 19, Williams removed Harper from a game for failing to run hard. Williams has shown no signs of being intimidated in his opening season at the helm of a team with World Series aspirations.

“With regard to scrutiny regarding the lineup, that’s on me,” Williams said Wednesday before the Nationals completed a three-game sweep of the Colorado Rockies with a 4-3 victory at Nationals Park. “I make the lineup.”

Nationals Park stopped playing A-ha's "Take on Me" during the seventh-inning stretch, and the Post Sports Live crew suggests some replacement songs. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)

That’s understood. But by making his feelings known — Harper also said he believes Ryan Zimmerman should play left, Danny Espinosa should play second base and Anthony Rendon should play third — Harper applied pressure on Williams.

The drumbeat of a 162-game schedule requires managers to make decisions based on a variety of factors. Injuries, ineffectiveness, favorable matchups — they all contribute daily to a manager’s thinking.

Harper’s return to the lineup after 57 games following left thumb surgery created a logjam. Williams cannot afford to alienate a two-time all-star slugger, who, based on his comments, obviously would prefer to be the Nationals’ regular center fielder. He also needs the rest of the team to continue to believe in him. That’s a lot to juggle.

Let’s say Williams shuffles the lineup soon and gives Span, the team’s best defensive outfielder, a day off to play Harper in center. It would be natural to wonder whether Harper’s outspokenness prompted change. If Harper, who went 1 for 3 while batting sixth again Wednesday, suddenly is moved up higher in the batting order, would the promotion be for the right reasons? Harper opened that door. On Wednesday, Williams declined to walk through it.

“It would beneficial for everybody to just see how it plays out,” Williams said, preferring not to speculate on future lineup combinations. “I don’t anticipate Bryce Harper hitting sixth for the rest of the year.

“There’s a number of reasons for it, but first and foremost, he’s just coming back from injury. Does he hit two for us [at some point]? Yeah. Does he hit three for us? Yeah. Does he hit fourth? Yeah. Maybe not today, but he will. And it will be this year.”

For the most part, Williams has handled everything about as well as General Manager Mike Rizzo could hope. Under these circumstances, calm leadership is necessary, and Williams definitely has maintained his cool. On Wednesday, though, he went overboard in defense of Harper, essentially trying to argue that what Harper said really wasn’t all that bad.

“He said if [he] had the pen things may be different. It doesn’t mean that he disagrees with the way I’m doing things or has some issue with me,” Williams said. “What it means is, yeah, if I was him, I’d want to hit third and fourth, too.”

While saying that, Williams actually maintained a straight face, which was impressive. Before managing the Nationals, Williams was an all-star third baseman and a coach. As someone who has spent most of his adult life in Major League Baseball, he knows Harper, regardless of his intention, was way out of line trying to play manager. Williams completely lost me on his position about Harper’s desire to play center.

“He did not say, I want to play center field and put Denard on the bench,” Williams said. “That did not come out of his mouth [Monday]. I don’t think he said that. Now, that may be the perception of what he meant.”

The perception of what Harper said is what matters most. That’s what Williams may have to deal with for the rest of the season.

For more by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.

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