Bryce Harper's Disaster Season Leaves Nationals in Difficult Situation

Ben CarsleyContributor IAugust 11, 2014

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On April 19, Washington Nationals manager Matt Williams benched his young outfielder Bryce Harper for failing to run out a ground ball back to the pitcher.

Williams' decision was a divisive one, and fans, reporters and former players alike argued about the merits and drawbacks of the message Williams sent to one of his best players.

Regardless of the wisdom of Williams' move, he didn’t have to wait long to see the very real impact losing Harper would have on the game. Harper's spot came up in the bottom of the ninth inning, with the tying runs on second and third base. Kevin Frandsen was left to face St. Louis Cardinals closer Trevor Rosenthal instead of Harper, and Frandsen grounded out.

To many, that series of events underscored just how questionable it was for Williams to bench one of his best bats in the middle of a competitive game.

Harper is capable of changing any game with one swing of the bat, and he emerged as one of baseball's best young hitters in 2012 and 2013. He's on a historically successful pace, and he's one of the most exciting players in the game today.

That's why it's so incredible that now, as the Nationals gear up for another postseason push, benching Harper seems like a realistic option. Indeed, balancing Harper's promising past and future with his present struggles is a tall task for the Nats as they look to solidify their place atop the NL East.

Let's get the obvious out of the way: Harper is, by far, having his worst professional season to date in 2014. Through 228 plate appearances, the 21-year-old is hitting .249/.335/.363 with just four home runs, and he's striking out in a whopping 28.5 percent of his plate appearances.

Throw in what FanGraphs' metrics consider pedestrian baserunning and defensive abilities, and Harper has been worth just 0.2 fWAR this season.

Earlier this year, after Harper's benching by Williams, The Washington Post's Thomas Boswell infamously wrote that "Harper may be the Nats' seventh-best player." His statement was routinely mocked at the time, and it's fair to criticize many of the long-term assertions he made in his piece.

Yet as of August 11, Harper is tied for 23rd on the team in fWAR, behind the likes of Aaron Barrett, Blake Treinen, Tyler Moore and Zach Walters.

Harper's performance to this point in the season holds little predictive power, of course, and it would be foolish to suggest that Harper isn't Washington's best long-term asset. He's already thrived in the majors at an age when most players are in Low-A, and the notion that he's overrated or overhyped is insane.

And, to be fair, Harper missed a significant portion of time this season, injuring his thumb and missing all of May and nearly all of June in the process. Hand injuries are notoriously tricky for hitters to overcome, meaning lingering effects could be hampering Harper's performance even now.

But regardless of any caveats we can conjure up, Harper has performed poorly this season, shows no signs of turning it around and is hurting a team fighting for an NL East pennant. Since coming back from the disabled list on June 30, Harper has hit just .220/.324/.322 with 44 strikeouts against just 18 walks.

With that knowledge in mind, what's the best course of action for the Nationals to take in order to get Harper back on track and give them the best shot at winning every night?

Were health on the Nationals' side, this might be a more difficult decision. But with Ryan Zimmerman, Nate McLouth and Steven Sousa on the DL, Washington's best course of action is to keep playing Harper every day.

There's a sentiment out there that Harper has only avoided the bench to this point because of his "superstar" status. In reality, the real reason Harper has yet to be benched is because the alternatives are Scott Hairston, Kevin Frandsen and Michael Taylor.

Taylor is an exciting prospect in his own right, to be sure, and Hairston and Frandsen have their uses. But starting any of the three over Harper on a consistent basis would indeed be foolish.

PHILADELPHIA, PA - JULY 11: Ryan Zimmerman #11 of the Washington Nationals hits a double in the eighth inning against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park on July 11, 2014 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Phillies won 6-2. (Photo by Drew Hall
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Both Jayson Werth and Denard Span deserve to play over Harper this year. Perhaps if Zimmerman were healthy and capable of playing left field, this would be a more interesting decision for Williams and Co. Even McLouth could make things interesting, given Harper's struggles against right-handed pitching in 2014.

As of now, however, it's difficult to argue that Washington's best lineup has Harper batting down the order and working on adjustments. At the very least, it certainly provides the Nats with a lineup with the highest upside.

And as for the notion that Harper should be sent down to the minors, Williams dispelled that idea with force, as Mark Townsend of Yahoo Sports detailed last week.

"Bryce Harper is one of the guys on our team, he’s a very important part of our team. Just like everybody else is," Williams said on 106.7 The Fan last week, according to The Washington Post. "It’s not fair to the kid. It’s not fair to the rest of the guys in that clubhouse to even think about sending Bryce Harper to the minor leagues, or to cause a stir."

Of course, causing a stir is one of Harper's specialties, and that's likely why his slump has received so much attention in recent weeks. After all, when Harper gives an honest answer or drags his foot in the dirt, it turns into front-page news.

Luis M. Alvarez/Associated Press

That can make it tempting to turn Harper's struggles into something more than what they truly represent: An injured 21-year-old trying to make adjustments through the worst slump of his professional career.

Watching Harper swing through pitches and hit balls to the warning track may be difficult now, to be sure. But should the Nationals end up needing Harper in late September or once the playoffs come around in October, they'll be glad they stuck with him.

Baseball has a way of humbling even its best talents. But ultimately, Harper's talent should prevail.