Harp-ocalypse Now.

I watched a snail…crawlin’ on the edge…of a straight razor. That’s my dream. That’s my nightmare. Crawling, slithering…along the edge…of a straight…razor…and surviving.

Truer words were never said about the Nats’ (lack of) offense.

Nats town is reeling. In the midst of a two-game losing streak (this is what passes for a catastrophe for the 2012 Nationals), the Nats place Ryan Zimmerman on the 15-day Disabled List for a shoulder injury. But Nats fans scarcely had any time to react, because the next news item was even more shocking:

Bryce Harper was called up from Syracuse. He will make his big-league debut tonight at Dodger Stadium, batting seventh, and playing left field.

Am I surprised? Yes. I had guessed that Harper would make his debut much later–at home against the Rays on June 19th.

Some might think that this is a desperation move by the Nats. That might be part of the story. The Nats score only 3.55 runs per game–and, if you take away the two occasions where they scored 7 runs, the Nats would only score 3.16 runs per game. Current Nationals left fielders (Bernadina, Nady, DeRosa, and Lombardozzi),  are batting a combined .161 this year–positively Matt Stairs-like! Even though Harper is only batting .250/.333/.375 so far at AAA Syracuse, almost anything is an improvement over what the Nats have now.

And, realistically who else could it have been? Let’s go through the Nats’ 40-man roster, shall we?

Zimmerman is out on the DL. So if you were looking for a one-for-one replacement, you’d want someone in the system who can play third base, who might have some offense. Anthony Rendon? Well, even if he were ready (remember, he’s only at high-A Potomac), he’s not available because of that awful ankle injury. That leaves Syracuse Chiefs third baseman Carlos Rivero, who has not exactly been crushing International League pitching (.236/.250/.309). Your best bet for a third baseman is probably someone already on the big-league roster. From what I saw last night, Lombo can play a pretty decent third base. So can Chad Tracy, if necessary.

OK, so now we can bring up an outfielder. Who’s available? Other than Harper, the only available outfielder on the 40-man roster is AA Harrisburg’s Eury Perez, who’s got some speed and pop. But so far he’s batting .225/.266/.247 in the Eastern League–not exactly what the Nats would be looking for in terms of big-league offense.

That leaves Harper, batting an underwhelming .250/.333/.375 at AAA Syracuse–that suspiciously low SLG number is not very reassuring, although there is some evidence that he’s feeling a bit more hitterish lately.

Many in Nats town–myself included–were wondering whether this was the moment we would see Tyler Moore, renowned murderer of International League baseballs, get the call. There were reports that Moore had been spending some time in left field to prepare him for this possibility. Moore is actually hitting better than Harper at the moment: .278/.354/.556.

But although Harper hasn’t been an outfielder for very long, he has at least been playing left field a lot more than Moore has. That, to me, would give Harper a very slight advantage in terms of getting called up.

Assuming Zimmerman’s DL stint is not an eerie repeat of 2011 Adam LaRoche (which began with a brave face, then a trip to the disabled list, then season-ending surgery), the Harper call-up is ominous for the members of Nats bench–the “Goon Squad.”

Because of the injury to Michael Morse, left field has been Goon Squad turf all season thus far. The offensive production hasn’t been pretty. If Zim comes back, and Harper is at least halfway competent, one of the goons is going to be terminated. With extreme prejudice.

Advertisements

How Good Does Bryce Harper Have to Be?

Keen readers of this blog–both of you–will have noticed one glaring omission among all of my calculations. I have thus far decided not to include a certain 19-year-old catcher-turned-outfielder who last saw limited playing time at AA Harrisburg.

In a recent column, the Washington Post’s Jason Reid suggested that Bryce Harper needs to grow up. Given that this is the same Jason Reid whose journalistic insight into the Redskins’ quarterback situation early in the 2011 season gave Washington sports fans–and journalism as a whole– the biggest “Doh!” moment since the night Dewey beat Truman, I was moved to tweet:

The fact that @JReidPost raised doubts about @BHarper3407 making the team leads me to conclude Harper WILL make the #nats opening day team

Well, if Harper does make the Opening Day roster, how good does he have to be to do no harm to a squad already projected for 86 wins?

Let’s assume Harper is an everyday player. There’s no indication so far that he can play center field. The Nats don’t have anyone available with a positive UZR as a center fielder except Werth. So let’s put Harper in right field. Here’s the most dangerous assumption of them all: assume Harper is a totally average defender.

Assuming a Healthy LaRoche

Let’s also assume that Adam LaRoche is healthy and ready to be his usual self at first base. That rounds out the outfield as Morse, Werth, and Harper.

Someone needs to get bumped off the bench. Given that the Nats went out and got DeRosa and Ankiel, that leaves Roger “The Shark” Bernadina the odd man out, so we need to assume that The Shark doesn’t break camp with the Nats.

Assuming everybody’s an every-day type player, we’ll need to cut down DeRosa’s plate appearances, to reflect his status as a real bench player and not half of a platoon. Let’s give him 250 plate appearances. Same with Ankiel.

As constructed and run through my model, this Harper-less squad is good for 83 wins. Were he to join the Nats as the opening-day right fielder, Harper would need to have a wRC of 25–that is “create” 25 runs over 162 games.

What does 25 wRC look like? It looks like an outfielder not much worse than Aaron Rowand of the Giants, who posted 27 wRC in 2011. Rowand batted .233/.274/.347 with 30 extra-base hits (including 4 home runs) in 2011. That’s a pretty low bar to clear.

But What If LaRoche Isn’t on the Team?

The situation becomes more complicated if LaRoche is not healthy. Morse has to move to first base. Werth slides to center, Harper moves into right. Left field sees a Bernadina/DeRosa platoon. Cameron and Ankiel come along for the ride as bench players. What does this look like now? Not too good, I’m afraid: 73 wins.

To do no harm to the team in this situation, Harper would need to be worth 90 wRC. What does a 90 wRC outfielder look like? Consider Matt Holliday of the Cardinals, who posted exactly 90 wRC in 2011. In 2011, Holliday batted .296/.388/.525 with 36 extra-base hits (including 22 home runs). That’s a much taller order.

To put the sheer magnitude of that task into perspective consider this: in 147 plate appearances with AA Harrisburg, Bryce Harper posted a wRC of 18. Normalizing that to the 600 plate appearances one might expect to see out of an every-day player, that would have given Harper an expected wRC of 83.72. Harper would have to hit major-league pitching better than he hit AA pitching to even have a chance of doing no harm to the team in this situation.

Fangraphs’ RotoChamp projection sees Harper with 259 plate appearances in 2012, projecting a wRC of 36 from those plate appearances. Even if we normalize this to 600 plate appearances, that only gets us to 83.39 wRC–not quite good enough for our purposes.

That’s how good Bryce Harper has to be. The real question is: how good is Bryce Harper? Only he can show us if he’s as good as he has to be. For the sake of Nats fans everywhere, I hope he shows us he’s much better than even that.