Harper puts Nationals, manager Williams in tough position

Washington Nationals manager Matt Williams put on his happy face, denying he had a rift with Bryce Harper and saying, 'I've got Bryce's back in every way.' It was an interesting reaction considering that 24 hours before, Harper gave an interview in which he all but told Williams how to do his job.

Bryce Harper (left) suggests he play center with Ryan Zimmerman (right) in left field.

Evan Vucci / AP

Can we stop with the baseball bromide, “Things will work themselves out?” No. Sorry. Things don’t always work themselves out. Consider the Washington Nationals, a team very much on edge, whether they admit it or not.

Manager Matt Williams put on his happy face Tuesday, denying he had a rift with Bryce Harper, telling reporters, “I’ve got Bryce’s back in every way.” It was an interesting reaction, to say the least, considering that 24 hours before, Harper gave an interview in which he all but told Williams how to do his job.

Williams, in his first year managing, is in a difficult if not impossible position. He needs to win over Harper, who, when healthy, is the Nationals’ most dynamic player. But Williams also needs to win over his other veterans, some of whom resent that Harper is the most famous and popular Nat even though he has yet to play 140 games in a season and is still only 21.

What does Williams tell those veterans, who mostly play and hit where they are told, and are certainly more discreet than Harper when they object to the manager’s decisions?

What does he tell center fielder Denard Span, who would be the odd man out in Harper’s suggested lineup, which includes Ryan Zimmerman in left field, Anthony Rendon at third base, Danny Espinosa at second and — ahem — Harper in center?

The challenge for Williams is not as pronounced as, “Lose Harper, or lose everyone else” — at least not yet. But the friction is real. If perceived slights translated into wins, the Nats would run away with the NL East.

Thing is, Harper is right about how this should play out — Zimmerman, due to his throwing problems, no longer should play third. Heck, Zimmerman has all but screamed from the hills that he much prefers left field, albeit more diplomatically than Harper.

And Span?

Harper seemed to condemn him on Monday without ever saying his name. Yet Harper, in a June 5 interview with the Washington Post, was downright respectful of Span and the Nationals’ greater predicament.

Asked how he would fit after returning from left thumb surgery, Harper said, “I’m not sure. Zim’s pretty good in left now. I think Rendon is a hell of a third baseman. Espinosa, he’s a hell of a second baseman. I really have no idea what they’re going to do, how they’re going to do it.

“I think everyone knows I love center field. That’s where I’d like to be. My numbers are a lot better in center field. I feel good there. But you know, of course, we have Denard Span, who’s one of the best center fielders in the game, if not the best.”

Why didn’t Harper speak as effusively about Span upon rejoining the team Monday? Good question. His comments raised eyebrows throughout the industry, and could not be dismissed as a youthful indiscretion. Harper is savvy for his age, savvy to baseball’s ways. Yet as one friend says, “I don’t understand why he makes it hard on himself, talking publicly about things like this. Just play, and everything takes care of itself.”

Harper sounded as if he didn’t care how others might react, and perhaps he doesn’t. He surely senses that some of his teammates want him knocked down, believing that he has not earned all of his endorsements, all of his attention. But if a double standard exists, Harper might see it as working against him, too.

Williams gushed about Harper in spring training, gushed about him again on Tuesday, saying, “I’m happy to write his name in the lineup every day. Who wouldn’t be?” But actions speak louder than words. And Williams’ actions do not always suggest that he has Harper’s back “in every way.”

On April 19, Williams removed Harper from a game for failing to run hard, two days after warning the team that such conduct was unacceptable. At the time, Harper was nursing a sore quad and reportedly battling the flu. Not only did Williams bench him, but the manager also discussed the incident at length with the media, adding to the player’s humiliation.

Harper might wonder why Williams could not settle on a position for him in the batting order before he got hurt. He also might wonder why, dating back to when he was the No. 1 pick of the 2010 draft, the Nats have yet to find him a set position. They decreed that he no longer would catch and since have shuttled him between outfield positions, depending mostly upon need.

Williams deserves only so much criticism; this mess is not of his own making. The Nats had to know at the end of last season that Zimmerman no longer could throw effectively from third. But they declined to address the problem — a problem that only figured to get worse.

The Zimmerman conundrum was created in part by a previous decision by the club — the re-signing of free-agent first baseman Adam LaRoche to a two-year, $24 million deal after the 2012 season.

The move, advocated by former manager Davey Johnson, was not without basis; LaRoche had batted .315 with a .995 OPS in the final 35 games to help the Nationals win the NL East, and he remains one of the team’s best players. But the Nats, by renewing their commitment to LaRoche, lost their chance to install Rendon at third and move Zimmerman to first.

So now, they’re stuck.

They could trade or bench Span, who has improved his on-base percentage from .305 to .317 in the past two weeks. But many would interpret either move as a capitulation to Harper, potentially sparking greater clubhouse tension. Span does not throw as well as Harper, but both players and club officials view him as the team’s best defensive center fielder.

What about trading Harper? The idea is not as preposterous as it might sound. Harper would command a haul. He is represented by Scott Boras, meaning that the Nationals cannot expect to extend him before free agency. And the Nats have two promising young outfielders who are nearly major-league ready, Steven Souza and Michael Taylor.

Ownership probably would balk at the idea; Harper is the franchise’s meal ticket. Then again, if Harper is the center of the Nats’ universe, the team might as well go all-in. Play him in center. Stop worrying about Span. And don’t worry about anyone else’s feelings getting hurt.

Things will work themselves out, right?

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