Nationals Arm Race

"… the reason you win or lose is darn near always the same – pitching.” — Earl Weaver

Can we put the “Bryce Harper will make the team” stories to rest?


We all know what Harper’s potential is; but shouldn’t we wait until the ramifications of early promotion have passed? Photo unknown via

Davey Johnson inadvertently has started a storyline that just won’t go to bed; by saying that he wants Bryce Harper to break camp with the 25-man team, national writers and local beat reporters keep reporting about the possibility of Harper playing RF for the team on opening day.

Here’s the facts that that these reporters conveniently forget:

  1. If Harper starts the season with the big league club, then he reaches Free Agency one year earlier.
  2. If Harper joins the big league club after mid April but before mid-to-late June, then the financial penalties to the club are severe.

In case you weren’t aware of these two issues, lets discuss.

1. Reaching Free Agency a year early: See this excellent Service Time Consideration post from Ben Nicholson-Smith at  Simply put, if the Nats start Harper with the big league club as of April 1st, then he will be eligible for free agency at the end of the 2017 season.   If we wait a few weeks, then that buys the club an entire extra season of Harper’s time for the 2018 season.  As has been put simply by other writers, a few weeks of Harper’s rookie season at age 19 is absolutely not going to be worth the value he will provide to the team during an entire 2018 season, by which point he looks to have many full seasons of experience and should be nearing his baseball peak at age 25.

2. Super 2 Status implications: As we should all know by now, the financial implications of bringing up super stars too early can be severe.  Dave Sheinin did this analysis best back when we were asking the same question about Stephen Strasburg, looking at the Tim Lincecum case as a lesson learned.  The Giants called up Lincecum about two weeks prior to the Super-2 status deadline and it has roughly cost them $18million in unneeded salary.

Lots has been said about how Davey Johnson broke camp with two young superstars in Dwight Gooden and Daryl Strawberry during his time with the Mets in the mid 1980s, with the narrative being that he’s not afraid to give young players a shot early.  That’s a great story but it omits one key point: the Super-2 status didn’t exist when Johnson made these decisions!   The Super-2 status didn’t exist in the Collective Bargaining Agreement until 1990, when the players negotiated in the status as a way of getting more money earlier to their union members.  A great idea at the time, but it has had the unintended effect of teams now keeping their best prospects in the minors until the mid-June time-frame as a way of gaming the system and keeping their pay low.

Frankly, I’m tired of reading stories about Harper that don’t at least tacitly acknowledge these two important points, and to me any story that talks of Harper making the team blindly without addressing these two modern baseball issues is lazy sports writing.  Johnson may want the guy now, but Mike Rizzo is the guy who has to answer to fans as to why the Nats won’t be able to get a free agent in 3 year’s time because of the payroll implications (upwards of $18M in some cases) of screwing up these decisions.  $18M in payroll generally buys you two starting players on the free agency market, and those two players can make the difference far more than a few weeks of Harper hitting .200 as a 19-yr old.

Honestly, everyone thought that this issue would have been addressed in the latest version of the CBA, negotiated ad-naseum over the past off season.  The clause helps no one; players are kept in the minors longer to game the system, teams have to wait to bring up players that could help them win now, and fans are forced to wait to see the best young stars.  Instead the two sides managed to make the situation WORSE, by increasing the percentage of players that qualify for Super-2 and now forcing teams to keep players in the minors even longer.  It was an inexplicable decision by both sides to further exacerbate the problem.  I realize that no matter what you do, there has to be a cutoff date for service time deadlines to qualify for free agency and/or super-2 status, but why no just make that date early in the season and fix all the problems caused by super-2?

As a fan of the team this season, yeah I’d love to see Harper up and starting in RF.  Who wouldn’t?  But as a long term fan, I want this team to have the best chance of winning for years to come.  And thus I want Harper in the minors until these two issues are non-issues any longer.

8 Responses to 'Can we put the “Bryce Harper will make the team” stories to rest?'

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  1. Spot-on analysis. I can’t believe how many writers are jumping on this storyline. I expect Davey Johnson to say what he’s saying—he’s trying to build relationships with his players and spark fan interest—but this story is getting waaaay overblown. Boswell implied last week that Harper could come up in late April. Crazy, crazy, crazy! Even ignoring the extra money you’d pay on the back end, it just doesn’t make sense from an on-field production standpoint. Harper isn’t going to hit 30-40 homers this year. From a development standpoint, does anyone really think he’ll produce more than Junior Griffey, Mickey Mantle, or A-Rod did at his age? If so, they need to stop guzzling that Kool-Aid. Harper needs to develop in the minors. Maybe he’ll be ready to come up in late June, maybe he won’t; but that decision should be made exclusively on his actual Major League readiness, not on over-hyped media expectations. Even if he meets or exceeds those expectations, he doesn’t give the Nats enough on the field to justify costing the team a lot of money a few years from now.


    5 Mar 12 at 1:02 pm

  2. I didn’t even mention in the post this fact: he only had a .724 OPS in AA in 2011! Sure he tore up low-A as one of the youngest players there, but when he got to AA he was, well, not overmatched but certainly not hitting .350. So to me, there’s another simple reason to put him back in the minors. Rizzo likes guys graduating from each level and I’d argue that Harper hasn’t proven he’s conquered AA yet.

    My irritation with this story line is related to a growing trend that I’ve seen in sportswriting; just publishing the narrative without doing your own research. You know, stories like “Braun got off on a technicality,” “Harper is immature,” and “Oakland’s stadium is the reason their pitchers have good stats.” On the last point, i’ve got a draft post pointing out that the park factors in Oakland for the past few years are nearly league average … check it out: … multi-year park factors are 99 and 99 for hitters/pitchers. Where’s the massive park effect? Now compare that to San Diego and Colorado for two extremes … but the constant narrative about Oakland i’m starting to doubt.

    Todd Boss

    5 Mar 12 at 1:28 pm

  3. Yes, and still you continue to “miss the mark” which is the true definition of the word “sin” from the ancient tongue.

    Harper makes the team. Why? Quite simple.

    1. Harper is a left-handed impact hitter in the offing. The Nats have not even one of those! NOT EVEN ONE! No LaRoche is average at best if you look at his batted run stats. And Espinosa may do better this year batting left-handed … but he is a natural right hander right?

    2. Johnson likes to think he is the finishing school for top prospects. And he does it in the majors. Sure Harper won’t set the world on fire as he learns to adjust to major league pitching. But Johnson believes HE CAN accelerate that process where the managers and coaches in the minors CANNOT. Yes, he thinks he knows more baseball than anyone else in the organization and he may be right.

    The only way Harper stays and develops in the minors is if someone like Corey Brown, Roger Bernadina, or Rick Ankiel hit like Morse did last spring. Want to bet on that happening? If it doesn’t Harper comes in late April at the LATEST. To compete the Nats need an impact left-handed bat in their lineup in the outfield. Or for Matt Skole to suddenly develop into a top 10 prospect leap into AA.


    5 Mar 12 at 2:09 pm

  4. I didn’t assert that Harper definitely wouldn’t make the team before late June; only that he definitely shouldn’t.

    I don’t know ‘bout no ancient tongues, but I can occasionally spot glaring internal inconsistencies: In peric’s numbered paragraph 1, Harper is “a left-handed impact hitter in the offing”, and the Nats need him to bring him up right away to fill their left-handed power vacuum. In numbered paragraph 2, however, “Harper won’t set the world on fire as he learns to adjust to major league hitting” (which I interpret to mean “he won’t be that great”). These two positions are mutually exclusive—unless the qualifier “in the offing” means “he won’t set the world on fire” in the ancient tongue.

    I basically agree with peric’s paragraph 2: Davey thinks Davey’s a genius, and Harper isn’t going to be great player right out of the gate. I suspect Todd also agrees with those points, as he just pointed out how Harper was only so-so against AA pitchers last year, and has yet to face AAA staffs.

    But peric’s numbered paragraph 1 is just wrong. First, unless I’m mistaken, I think Espinosa historically hits better left-handed than right, and that he was off last year because of a wrist injury. Second, a healthy LaRoche is a perfectly serviceable left-handed bat, and he should be an improvement over any lefties from last season’s lineup. And third, I may be going out on a limb here, but unless Harper is better at 19 than Griffey and Mantle were at 20, then a healthy LaRoche would likely be more productive offensively than Harper anyway.

    This sort of thinking is what I mean by Kool-Aid guzzling. Sure, Harper is a left-handed impact hitter in the offing—but it’s the “in the offing” part that needs to be emphasized. He absolutely needs to prove himself before they bring him up. Why? Quite simple: BECAUSE EVERYONE ELSE HAS TO. He doesn’t get to skip steps just because SI made him a teen coverboy.


    5 Mar 12 at 4:00 pm

  5. I agree with your post re: lazy writers not mentioning this, but I don’t think the CBA’s failure to “solve” this problem is at all confusing. The player’s union wants more players to be eligible for arbitration more quickly. The owners do not want that. The “Super Two” rule is a concession to the players, making some players with less than three full years of service time arb-eligible. The players are never going to give that up without some significant countervailing concession on the part of the owners. The new CBA, which increases the number of “Super Two” eligible players, is a further concession, which was undoubtedly the subject of negotiations. It absolutely was not a “failure” by both sides, it was something the players wanted and the owners agreed to as part of the CBA. If one eliminated the Super Two rule right now, a chunk of players would be hurt by that. And, you can’t avoid the problem by selecting a date that is early in the season, because if it’s a fixed date, everyone will target it and then how do you distinguish based on what percentage of players top out in service time? I agree that it’s a stupid situation, but it’s not susceptible to a ready solution that doesn’t involve one side surrendering significant benefits.

    Section 220

    5 Mar 12 at 5:28 pm

  6. Can’t argue with your statements. But I’ll stand by what I said; a longer super2 means deserving players are stuck in the minors artificially for a longer time, fans are seeing a worse product on the field and teams are fielding weaker teams ON PURPOSE just to save money. It wasn’t just me saying they were surprised this wasn’t addressed in the latest CBA; there’s scores of baseball insiders who know that both sides realize the problem with it. I guess i’m just disappointed that it wasn’t even addressed. Instead the owners fought tooth and nail to save a few million dollars a year on amateur bonuses by putting severe limits on the draft and inadvertantly doing major long term damage to the sport. Grrr.

    Todd Boss

    6 Mar 12 at 7:00 pm

  7. Peric; answer this simple question; is Harper’s presence on the opening day roster going to guarantee a world series victory?

    If you can say with a straight face that Harper’s presence in the lineup is the difference maker, in 2012, for this team then I’d give credence to your arguments.

    However, you failed to address the two main points of my post, neither of which are very arguable. Statistically speaking a few weeks of Harper in 2012 is not going to be worth a full season of him at age 25. Its simple. And, there’s a reason the team kept Strasburg down in the minors until mid June so he could strike out 14 major league hitters in his debut; it wasn’t because they really wanted to hold him down; its because that was the prudent team management thing to do.

    Todd Boss

    6 Mar 12 at 9:53 pm

  8. Good stuff, all. Harper’s just not ready, and I’m sick of all the bad writing about it.
    Let him hit above league average in AA before we go anywhere else.

    Mark L

    7 Mar 12 at 8:41 am

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