Harper could stick in center field or move to left, which allows the Nationals contingencies in case free agent first baseman Adam LaRoche signs with another team and Michael Morse moves from left to first base. Harper played center field for the first time and excelled — advanced defensive metrics rated him as one of the best defenders in the league. If he played left, Harper would have one of the best arms at his position in the majors.
But Harper’s versatility also raises another question: How long can he play center field? The Nationals were wary last season when they moved him there, worried about the strain it would place on his body compared with other positions. Harper, about 6 feet 3 and 220 pounds, is already a large man, and he will keep growing. They know, eventually, they will need to keep him in the corner outfield to save his body from constant pounding.
“The word ‘eventually’ is key there,” Rizzo said. “He’s a 20-year-old kid, he’s got great energy and great stamina and strength, so I’m not worried about tiring him out at 20 years old just from playing in center field. He’s going to play every day somewhere, and he’s going to play at 110 miles an hour wherever he’s at.”
As last year wore on, Rizzo and Manager Davey Johnson saw Harper become a more graceful runner, with easier strides that taxed his body less. But they still believe it will be unsustainable to keep him in center, tracking down more balls than he would in a corner spot. His agent, Scott Boras, believes “eventually” is sooner than later.
“When their weight gets above 225 to 240 [pounds], and these guys can leap so high because they’re so athletic . . . the stress on their joints and ligaments is immense,” Boras said. “Particularly when they’re middle-of-the-lineup hitters, each team has to balance that risk factor. In the end, those types of players usually end up being corner outfielders because they’re so valuable offensively. You don’t want to risk too much on the requirements and burdens of center field on those types of athletes.”
For now, the Nationals still consider Harper an option in center field for the 2013 season. And that multiplies the ways they can plan. They could simply re-sign LaRoche and play with essentially the same lineup as last season. But the longer LaRoche tests the market, the longer he has to find an offer the Nationals wouldn’t match.
On Friday, LaRoche declined the Nationals’ one-year qualifying offer, ensuring the Nationals an extra draft pick if he signs with another team. LaRoche will be in demand on a market bereft of quality first basemen; the Boston Red Sox have already shown strong interest.