Fitting Harper into lineup a 'great problem' for Nats
With All-Star poised to return, Williams must divvy up playing time in crowded outfield
CHICAGO -- Imagine if your team were in first place and about to add a 21-year-old player who was already a two-time All-Star? A guy who can run, throw and was hitting 500-foot home runs when he was 15 years old? A guy who skipped his senior year of high school so he could go into the Draft early, then was picked first overall?
What would you have to give up to get a guy like that?
The answer for the Nationals, at least at this point, is a plane ticket to Reagan National or Dulles, preferably getting him there on Monday. That's when Bryce Harper figures to be ready to go after rehabbing his surgically repaired thumb, and he's going to make a good team a whole lot better.
It says a lot for rookie manager Matt Williams and his players -- Anthony Rendon and Ryan Zimmerman, in particular -- that the Nats have gone 28-26 without Harper, claiming the lead in the National League East.
Zimmerman's move from third base to left field, which opened up a spot for the highly productive Rendon, has filled the hole that initially was created when Harper tore a ligament in his left thumb diving head-first into third base on April 25. But something's got to give with Harper seemingly only a few days away from returning.
There's probably no way Zimmerman is returning to third base on a regular basis, not with his arthritic shoulder such a liability. When he two-hopped a throw in to second base in the fourth inning of Thursday's 5-3 loss to the Cubs, you felt for him.
So Williams is going to earn his managerial keep by figuring out how to cram four regulars -- Jayson Werth, Denard Span, Harper and Zimmerman -- into his outfield.
"The potential we have, I don't view it negatively,'' Williams said. "I view it positively. Those are tough decisions to make. [But] it's great if you have too many guys. All these guys are everyday players, and they're wonderful players.''
Maybe Williams should call Don Mattingly for advice. On the rare occasion his players have all been healthy, the Dodgers' manager has juggled Matt Kemp, Carl Crawford, Andre Ethier and Yasiel Puig in the outfield for a year now. So it can be done.
General manager Mike Rizzo, Williams and the team's staffers -- both in the dugout and the analytics room back in Washington -- have poured over this impending issue for weeks. It appears that Harper is going to play all over the outfield when he returns, in some form of a rotating platoon, but Williams hasn't announced his intentions.
While the Nationals are at Wrigley Field, Harper will spend his weekend in Akron, Ohio, playing for Double-A Harrisburg. He was playing right field Thursday, but is due to also spend time in left and center in upcoming games.
Williams indicated the team won't outline plans for Harper until he's back in uniform.
"We'll certainly talk to him when he comes back,'' he said. "We'll talk about what our plans are going forward, how we're going to do it, and what the needs are. We'll look to that. But he's a great athlete. He can play any [field]. That's why he's playing all three of them.
"We just don't know how it's going to pan out when he gets back. It's a great problem to have, but there are some decisions to be made on an everyday basis. That's why he's playing all [three positions].''
Meanwhile, Williams and his coaches have begun having informal talks with Zimmerman, Span and Werth about the second half of the season.
"I just have conversations with [them], talk to them about what our plans may be,'' Williams said. "It's not written in stone by any stretch because we just don't know. But [we tell players], 'You may find yourself [in a different position], make sure you're getting some work there.'"
Harper and Span hit left-handed; Werth and Zimmerman right-handed. But any potential time share arrangement could be complicated by how both Zimmerman and Harper aren't following their usual platoon tendencies. Zimmerman has been more productive against right-handed pitchers, and Harper more productive against left-handed pitchers (albeit in a 22-game sample).
Williams is working to sell his veterans on how rest could benefit them given the exhausting nature of a 162-game schedule. But he knows there will be times when the guys on the bench aren't happy.
"Everybody wants to play every day, but physically it's demanding,'' Williams said. "It's really demanding. Where we're at right now, we have to look at history. We have to look at where we're at now and how we got here. We got here by running a pretty regular lineup out there every day. To do that for 162 is probably not a smart thing so we want to get some guys some days [off].''
Williams faces a special challenge in how to awaken the bat of Nate McLouth, who became the primary left fielder when Harper went out, but is hitting .174 in 115 at-bats. He could become an expensive pinch-hitter.
The good news for the Nationals is the overcrowding could be eased after this season. Zimmerman is expected to move to first base, with the team not exercising the option on Adam LaRoche's contract.
In the meantime, Williams hopes he can use his inventory of players to build on the solid start.
"We've won some games we probably shouldn't have won,'' Williams said. "Come back in some games we were down early. Our starters have kept us in games and our bullpen's been great. That combination has allowed us to get to where we're at. There's a lot of season left. We'd love to have everybody back, and we're looking forward to that, but we still have to play well. To this point they've done that. They've played well.''
The fun may be just starting.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.