Like it or not, Nats handling Harper the right way

VIERA, Fla. - Today marks the Nationals' only off-day of the Grapefruit League season.

Players will get a chance to rest up or hit the beach, manager Davey Johnson will go home and see his wife ... and I'll continue to write about the Nats.

Am I a saint for writing even on the off day? No. Well, maybe. But hey, there's a lot to discuss, especially after yesterday's announcement that the Nats optioned outfielder Bryce Harper to Triple-A Syracuse.

There will certainly be some who are upset with the decision, feeling that the Nationals would be better off slotting Harper into their opening day lineup, regardless of his age, contract situation or relative inexperience at the professional level.

After all, a center field rotation of Rick Ankiel, Roger Bernadina and Brett Carroll isn't likely to keep opposing teams' pitchers up at night. The Nationals will need all the offense they can get this season, and after scoring just 3.87 runs per game last year (23rd in the majors), some fans might be frustrated that the team would ship out a guy who could add a legitimate presence in the middle of their lineup, even though that guy is just 19 years old.

But regardless of how some fans might feel about the decision, it was the right move for a few reasons.

Bryce_Harper-tall-hitting-Nats.jpgOne: Harper truly isn't ready yet.

If he spent a full season in the big leagues, Harper might smack 25 homers and delight fans across the country with ridiculous - and I mean ridiculous - batting practice performances. But given the way he performed this spring, it's clear Harper could use a little more seasoning at the plate.

Harper didn't hit .400 with five homers and 10 RBIs in spring, numbers which could have made a decision to send him to Triple-A one which drew some backlash from fans and possibly even Harper's Nationals teammates. Instead, he hit .286 with two extra-base hits (both doubles), no RBIs, 11 strikeouts and two walks. He struggled hitting off-speed stuff, and often looked overmatched when facing legitimate major league arms.

In at-bats this week against the Yankees' Michael Pineda and CC Sabathia and Detroit's Doug Fister, Harper went 0-for-4 with four strikeouts. It's a small sample size, yes, but Harper looked like a Triple-A player this week, not one ready to start the season in the bigs and face top-notch hurlers.

Two: The time in Triple-A will allow him to improve his defense and fine-tune his hitting without a super-intense spotlight on him each time he takes the field.

As both Harper and Johnson said yesterday, can you imagine how we all would have reacted if Harper had opened the season in the Nats' lineup and started 2-for-20? Can you imagine the response if Harper had airmailed a throw from the outfield, missing the cutoff man and allowing the winning run to score? Nationals Park would have been a hotbed for critics insisting the Nats rushed the phenom up too soon just to get butts in the seats and calling out the organization for not having Harper's best interests in mind.

In Syracuse, Harper can work on his swing and focus on improving his outfield play - while seeing time predominantly in center field - and he won't need to worry about pushing too hard or getting ripped for making a single mistake. That will be an incredibly valuable part of his growing process.

Three: Would you really not trade 21 days of Harper now for one full year of Harper when he's 25 years old and likely in his prime?

Really?

If the Nats wait for Harper to spend 21 days in the minors, it will ensure that they'll hold his rights through the 2018 season, when he'll be in full Harper mash mode. Why give up that one year just for three weeks of a kid who still isn't fully ready for the majors?

Allow Harper some time to get settled in at Syracuse, let him work his way into a comfort zone, and then call him up. That call-up will come, whether it's 21 days into the season, in mid-to-late June (when the Super Two deadline has passed, delaying the start of his salary arbitration clock) or any time after that once Harper has proven he's ready.

Harper will help the Nationals in 2012. The team feels confident saying so publicly. And the team was wise to not rush Harper to the majors and expect him to help from Day One.

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