Friday, March 23, 2012

Bryce Harper, Steven Lombardozzi, and Value

This week Mike Rizzo and Davey Johnson have made some headlines in regards to several young players and the future of the Nationals outfield. Bryce Harper, optioned to Triple-A Syracuse, is now slated to be their center fielder for the near future. Steven Lombardozzi, a promising middle infield prospect, will learn to play the outfield. While both moves are need based (The Nats lacking a long term CF option, Michael Morse ailing, Ryan Zimmerman, etc.) both moves also signal a shift in the player development strategy of the Nationals that I believe will improve the team this year and for many years to come.

When Syracuse takes the field for the first game of the season, Bryce Harper will be roaming centerfield and anchoring their line-up. The reason for starting Bryce in center is two-fold. Currently having only Eury Perez as an upper level prospect at the position, Mike Rizzo wants to try to make Bryce Harper the long term answer; the underlying reason is that Bryce Harper as the Nats long term centerfielder creates value for both the player and the ballclub. Positions like CF, SS, 2B are premium positions because they are difficult defensively and on most teams offense is sacrificed at at least 1, more often than not 2, of those positions. If Bryce fails to be a suitable CF option, then he is moved to a corner OF spot and is still an offensive force. If he succeeds, he locks up CF, a premium position, for 5-7 years while making prospects Perez, Brian Goodwin, Michael Taylor, and Destin Hood trade bait or fantastic back-up pieces.

Davey Johnson, when speaking about Lombardozzi getting some experience in the outfield, referenced Ben Zobrist. Rays fans and fantasy gurus alike will tell you all you need to know about this super-utility man; he can play anywhere on the field and fit anywhere on a line-up card. In 2009 he played 8 different positions if you include DH, hit nearly .300, and made all of his teammates better through regular off days. Can Lombardozzi be Ben Zobrist? That's not the question that Mike Rizzo and Davey Johnson should be asking (and to their credit they likely won't). The question is can the Nats afford to gamble on this possibility?

And that answer is a resounding yes. Over the past five years Evan Longoria has been the most talented Rays player, but it is very easy to argue that Ben Zobrist is Tampa's MVP. Again, the worst that happens is that Lombo can't play outfield and he returns to the infield, where he provides the club with stellar defense.

What these moves, along with the decision to play Anthony Rendon at SS and 2nd in addition to 3rd, signal is that the Nats have shifted their player development philosophy. By starting a player at a premium position and moving him should he fail, the Nats can create value. Simply put, offense is easy to find at corner OF spots and first base. But by developing players up the middle, having them learn the premium positions, you create more skill, more value, and a more talented organization.

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