Looking at where Harper will hit in 2013

If you don’t mind staying up close to or past midnight tonight, you’ll find the 2012 National League Rookie of the Year making an appearance on “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” a late-night talk show on ABC.

Bryce Harper will be swinging by the set for an interview with Kimmel, whose show starts at 11:35 p.m. It’s too bad Harper hasn’t been able to have any cool things happen to him prior to turning 21. Just a shame.

By the way, I’m setting the over/under at the first “That’s a clown question, bro” reference coming 55 seconds into Harper’s interview with Kimmel. Place your bets.

Harper After Walkoff tall.jpgBack at the Winter Meetings in December, I asked Nationals manager Davey Johnson whether he had started putting together possible batting orders for the 2013 season in his head. The answer, of course, was that he had; Johnson is always kicking around such ideas, even when months still separate him from seeing his full squad in person.

Johnson commented at that time that his batting order for this upcoming season would depend largely on what the Nats ended up doing at first base. Now that the left-handed hitting Adam LaRoche is locked in at that spot, we can start to speculate on what Johnson’s lineup will look like, and specifically, where Harper will be slotted.

Last season, after spending the first three weeks in the majors bouncing around the batting order, Harper was exclusively locked into the No. 2 spot in the lineup, seeing his name in that slot for his final 114 starts in the regular season. The rookie fit well in the No. 2 spot; he saw a good number of pitches, reached base at a solid .337 clip when hitting second and provided some pop ahead of Ryan Zimmerman and LaRoche.

This season, however, Harper appears unlikely to find himself hitting second too often. Johnson spent a little bit of time with Harper at Johnson’s charity golf tournament days before the Winter Meetings, and said that he started talking business with his young outfielder at one point.

“I might have to hit you cleanup,” Johnson recalled telling Harper. “He said, ‘No, I want to hit third.’ But he could move out of that No. 2 hole because I think he’s going to have ... he had a good year last year, but I think he’s going to have a breakout year coming up.”

The consensus among those in the Nationals’ front office is that while Harper posted strong overall offensive numbers as a rookie last season, we’re going to see his power numbers jump this year. Harper will be more settled at the major league level entering the 2013 campaign, will have a book on most of the pitchers he sees, and should be able to build off his strong finish to last season, when he was patient at the plate, laying off offspeed pitches out of the zone and punishing the few fastballs he saw.

As a result, it makes sense to move Harper down a few spots in the order. He could still hit second from time to time, but with the left-handed hitting Denard Span now slotted as the Nats’ leadoff hitter, Johnson will likely look to have a right-hander batting in the No. 2 hole (Jayson Werth is one option, Ian Desmond another) to force some matchup problems late in games.

If a righty does hit second, the left-handed hitting Harper could then bat third, ahead of Ryan Zimmerman and LaRoche. That gives the Nats perfect lefty-righty balance at the top of the order, balance which could continue all the way down the lineup if Johnson chooses to follow LaRoche with either Werth or Desmond and then Danny Espinosa and whichever catcher starts that day, Kurt Suzuki or Wilson Ramos.

If Harper bats third behind Span and Werth, he’d have two guys with career on-base percentages above .355 hitting in front of him.

Harper’s opportunities with runners in scoring position would likely increase, and with Zimmerman and LaRoche batting behind him, he’d have plenty of protection to prevent opposing hurlers from giving him nothing but junk pitches in key spots. Add it all up, and it could mean even more late-night TV appearances for Harper next offseason.

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