In my pre-season notebook, where I scribble all the useless data and hot tips for the year ahead (and occasionally jot something down like what I did in 2007: “Manto sez watch Bautista. Could hit 40”) I made this little note on my Washington Nationals page:
It was not the most outlandish forecast of all time. Predicting in March that Bryce Harper would be called up on April 25 was a less than even-money wager (and it was wrong, by two days). But when Harper looked ordinary in the spring, and anything but dominant in AAA this month, I nearly crossed out the note in order to write “September” instead.
In short, all of us who thought Harper would have played so well that he’d be “up” by April 25 were wrong.
That’s why the move to bring Harper up because of the injury to Ryan Zimmerman is, as the title of this post suggests, opportunistic genius. It’s a controlled experiment with a time limit, and that’s the variable none of us (maybe not even GM Mike Rizzo foresaw). Let me quote from my post here early last month:
…the most amazing question of the spring isn’t about whether or not Harper is going to open the season with the Nationals, nor the one that goes “are the Nats seriously considering it?” The answer is: what happens if it doesn’t work?
(19-year old Mickey) Mantle was sent down to AAA Kansas City after the game of July 13 (1951)…American League pitchers had begun to deny him fastballs late in May, and in his last six weeks before the demotion Mantle had hit just .211…
But Mantle’s demotion came 61 years ago. There was no internet, no cable, no tv sports news to think of, no radio call-ins, no blogs. The Yankees who didn’t get sent to the minors that season included Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Phil Rizzuto, Allie Reynolds, Vic Raschi, Ed Lopat, coach Bill Dickey, and manager Casey Stengel. They were the two-time defending World Champions and, frankly, it is possible that a lot of Yankee fans had no idea for days or weeks that Mantle had even been sent back to the minors.
That will most assuredly not happen if Bryce Harper struggles in the majors – if he bats .211 over 100 agonizing at bats and Mike Rizzo and Davey Johnson decide they have to send him to AAA. The coverage would be intense, uninterrupted, and brutal, and it would not stop the day Harper went to Syracuse or Harrisburg. It would be relentless.
Except now, it wouldn’t. If Harper hits .211 over 100 agonizing at bats (or just 50), and the Nats get healthy – gee, he showed flashes of brilliance and we know exactly what the later Harper will look like, but, gosh, Ryan Zimmerman is indeed coming off the disabled list on time on May 6 – the Nats can send him back to Syracuse and tell him and the world that this was the plan all along, see you real soon.
He would not have failed. The message would be: He did exactly what we needed him to do, on a short-term basis – and now having given him a taste of the real thing, we’re going to put him back in the oven because he isn’t going to play here every day and blah, blah blah, blah blah…
Of course, if he’s hitting .290 when Zimmerman comes off the DL, they can abandon the “plan” and stick him in the line-up for good.
And that is opportunistic genius.
It’s not new – the Yankees did the same thing with Derek Jeter for a long weekend in 1995 when they came up short in the infield – and it’s a mid-season cousin to the standard procedure with standout rookies: bring them up in September and stick them in the line-up. If they succeed, great. If they fail, the season is ending in three weeks, nobody will consider them as having flamed out. Heck, in 1977 the Tigers brought up Jack Morris, Lance Parrish, Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker over an eight-week span (the latter two debuted in the same game). Same idea, and it works nicely.
Of course, with Jayson Werth scratched, Michael Morse lost in some kind of injury ozone, and centerfield a mess, take the odds and wager on Harper overstaying his visit. Heck, he may have to overstay it in centerfield, and the other farmhand just promoted today Tyler Moore (is he a fun guy? Is he a merry Tyler Moore?) in a platoon of some kind in left.