Can You Over-hype the Nationals?
Bryce Harper has put on 10 pounds to hike his playing weight for 2013 to 230. I remember Jim Callis at Baseball America coming on our podcast a few years ago and quoting some scouts who believe Harper will one day have more of an Adam Dunn footprint than a Mickey Mantle one. I don’t believe it. ”The Kid” is too competitive for that to happen very soon, and as Tom Boswell opined this morning, he is driven by comparisons to Mike Trout. So I don’t expect “the Kid” to add so much girth as to threaten his stolen base total, not any time soon.
And what about the 19-year old who broke in running out from under his hat last April on a hustle double, who stole home against Cole Hamels after being plunked in a desperately weak attempt to show Harper what “Old School” baseball is about. Harper is too old school to bulk up to the point he cannot play the old “inside baseball” game as well as mash with the best of them. Boz is right. Harper wants to beat every statistical mark laid down by Trout now that Harper has turned 20.
There is even more speculation about how good the Nationals will be this year, than about Harper. Can the team that won 98 games last year be better in 2013? On paper it seems a distinct possibility, but it is a long season. Dan Haren is not a young guy any longer. Ian Desmond may fall to earth a bit. Yet as compelling as it is to project what all of the Nationals players might do as a whole, there is more potential excitement in Bryce Harper’s 2013 season than in the rest of the team combined.
That last claim is a dangerously stupid statement. What fool would overlook Stephen Strasburg pitching at the front of the Nationals rotation? There is plenty of excitement around a full year of Strazz. Who can forget his 14-strikeout performance on his first night pitching in the majors? And this is a team game. There are nine guys in the batting order and each one gets a chance to excite the fans. Jayson Werth’s home run in the fourth game of the NLDS is still the most dramatic moment of last year for Washington without a doubt.
Yet in the world of twitter and all the other social media, the focus on Harper just burns that much brighter, the magnifying glass on every hustle double, every triple where Harper slides into third ahead of the tag is blown up to mythic proportions by today’s media. And that is why the statement about what Harper brings to the game and to the Washington Nationals is not as stupid as it sounds.
One way to evaluate the Nationals and their two young talents is to examine it as a fantasy baseball question. Who is going to fetch the higher price in a fantasy auction. Harper or Strasburg? Strasburg has the potential to be the best pitcher in the National League this year. Strikeouts, wins, ERA? He will give you top performance in every category across the board if he stays healthy and pitches 200 innings as is his want.
Harper wants to hit 30 home runs, steal 30 bases and probably wants to hit .300. That last statistic is going to be a stretch, but if he hits third in the lineup–as Davey has promised he will–he has a chance to score 100 runs and drive in 100 as well. So who is the better fantasy player in 2013? I would go with Harper, but it is a close call. Strasburg could generate just as much fantasy value pitching for a very good team and with a very good bullpen to close for him, to save him for the stretch run.
Truth be told, however good Harper’s numbers are in 2013, despite all of the statistical juice that Harper and Strasburg will provide for a fantasy team, their real money value cannot be calculated in terms of stats. The electricity that Harper brings to every at bat, the hustle that brings fans young and old to the ballpark so they can say they were there when he stole home or hit the ball completely over the right field stands, that buzz has a value of a very different and very real kind. That value can be calculated as the ratings for the Nationals climb like a Saturn rocket this year, or in listening to the turnstiles spin and the money clatter into the team treasury. Having a piece of that is my secret baseball fantasy.
What is most remarkable, however, is that two players with the ability to be the best in the Nationals League both play on the same team. What a delightful dilemma to ponder how good the Nationals can be with Harper and Strasburg in 2013? Some where Clark Griffith is smiling. He knew that Walter Johnson was that once in a lifetime talent. He sought to build a team around the Big Train, but he never found that once in a lifetime hitter.
Davey Johnson had Daryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden on his 1986 World Championship Mets team. Maybe that is a reasonable comparison, maybe not. They were about as talented a duo as a manager could want. Yet now with another twosome who may re-write the history books can Davey really step aside at the end of this year?
If Strasburg and Harper play up to their expectations who wants to walk away from that? Not me, and there are a lot of others in Washington like me. We are not walking away from this kind of excitement. They are going to need bouncers to keep the fans out of Nationals Park this season. They had better be big guys too, real big ones, because closing the doors on this kind of fun could be dangerous. And that is no hype.