Here’s to Hoping Bryce Harper Becomes a Yankee

Bryce Harper

The Yankees went 2-5 in Tampa Bay and Kansas City and the embarrassing start to the road trip has led to a lot of the Yankees shaving off their mustaches. Obviously the Yankees’ scoring two runs or less in those five losses is because of facial hair.

With the Yankees and Nationals meeting for a short two-game series in Washington, James Meyerriecks of Federal Baseball joined me to talk about Bryce Harper’s incredible start to the season, the impact of Max Scherzer at the front of the rotation, what’s wrong with Stephen Strasburg and how easily the Nationals will win the NL East.

Keefe: In Bryce Harper’s rookie year in 2012, he hit 22 home runs at the age of 19. In 2013, he hit 20. Last season, he hit 13. It’s May 19 and he already has 14 this season and he’s 22 years old! I said 22!

Aside from home runs, Harper leads the league in runs scored, RBIs, walks, on-base percentage and slugging percentage.

How fun has it been to watch Harper over these three-plus seasons go from a teenage to possibly the most feared hitter in the majors? And I guess how devastating will it be when he’s a Yankee in a few years?!

Meyerriecks: Overall, it’s been a pleasure watching Harper grow before our eyes. That’s not to say there haven’t been some growing pains, though. Nationally, we always see labels like cocky or brash or immature. Harper’s youthful exuberance is part of what makes him such a fun player to watch for Nationals fans, but it’s also why he can be such a lightning rod with the media. Unfortunately, that youthful exuberance has actually had quite a few instances where it’s cost both Harper and the Nats over the past few seasons. He’s cost himself quite a bit of time due to injury after crashing into walls and tearing a ligament in his thumb on a head first slide.

As for his approach at the plate, that’s as mature as it gets. Early this season, he’s really showcased what aregenerally considered to be old player skills in the batter’s box. It’s always a fun cat and mouse game watching pitchers try to attack him. At just 22 years old, Harper is already growing into a player who very rarely swings at a “pitcher’s pitch”. He’s dictating almost every plate appearance with his discipline and has been reaping the benefits over the first month and a half. This isn’t something that happened over night, but it’s a part of his game that hasreally evolved so far this season.

As for the future Yankee question, we’ll see how it plays out. Harper is a Scott Boras client, so it would be a major surprise if he doesn’t test free agency when he’s eligible. We’ll cross that bridge when we get there, though. Harper will be a National through at least 2018, so I’ll enjoy him while he’s here.

Keefe: Every day the Nationals send somewhat of a household name to the mound with Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmerman, Doug Fister and Gio Gonzalez. It wasn’t that long ago that Gonzalez was either the team’s No. 1 or No. 2 starter and now he’s either the No. 4 or No. 5.

In New York, with Masahiro Tanaka on the disabled list, It’s Michael Pineda, CC Sabathia, Nathan Eovaldi, Adam Warren and Chris Capuano, which is probably the Yankees’ worst rotation since they were trotting Sidney Ponson and Darrell Rasner out there way too much in 2008.

What’s it like knowing that every game you might have the better starting pitching going and have a chance to win? I only ask because I miss that feeling.

Meyerriecks: Part of what’s so fun about this rotation is that they not only have multiple aces, but amazing depth. All five of the Nats starters are capable of going out and throwing zeros up on the board every time they step on the diamond. What’s scariest for other teams (particularly within the NL East) is that they even have depth beyond that starting five, with Tanner Roark having moved to the bullpen after going 15-10 with a 2.85 ERA last season.

It’s awesome knowing that, regardless of who is up next in the rotation, there’s potential for a dominant performance.  Even when the team is scuffling a bit, it’s never really time to panic. There’s this old adage about momentum only being as good as the next day’s starting pitcher. The Nats’ rotation depth means that they’re always just a day away from having a terrific shot at snapping a losing streak. They’ve come a long ways from the days when John Lannan was getting the opening day nod.

Keefe: I wasn’t happy this offseason when the Yankees decided to not be in on Max Scherzer, Jon Lester or James Shields. Given the concerns and unknowns of most of the Yankees rotation, I felt they needed to make a play for at least one of the three best starters available on the free-agent market to solidify their staff, but they didn’t and now I’m stuck watching Adam Warren and Chris Capuano make up 40 percent of the rotation.

The Nationals signed Scherzer to a seven-year, $210 million deal and so far he has lived up to his deal as he has a 1.75 ERA and somehow, but somehow has three losses. In those three losses, he gave up three earned runs combined and he also has a no-decision in which he allowed on earned run over six innings. From past Yankees free-agent pitching signings (most of which didn’t work out), I can say there is usually an adjustment period to a starter on a new team trying to prove himself or prove his worth, but that hasn’t been the case for Scherzer.

Have you been impressed with how good Scherzer has been in his return to the NL or did you expect this kind of performance?

Meyerriecks: At the time that the Nats signed him, I expected to hear a lot about how signing Scherzer was unnecessary with all of that rotation depth that you brought up in the previous question. With Zimmermann and Fister due to hit free agency after this season, Scherzer’s signing seemed like a move to stabilize the rotation beyond 2015. It certainly seemed like a deal that would improve the team this season as well, and it has.

Based on what he’d already done in his career, I don’t think there was much doubt that his on-field performance would fit right in on the Nats. He did win the 2013 AL Cy Young. He led the majors in strikeouts from 2012-2014. He ranked 22nd in ERA (3.24) and 6th in FIP (2.94) over that same span, so there was little doubt that his profile added an awful lot of talent to the 2015 Nats.

However, what’s been most amazing is how the team and the city have embraced him. At the time that the Nats signed Scherzer, we heard lots of stories that Scherzer wanted to sign with the Nats and that, unlike what we’d usually expect to hear, he was as aggressive about pursuing a contract in D.C. as the Nats were in pursuing him. When I heard that, I thought it was all lip service. Scherzer didn’t exactly have ties to the area. He grew up (here … yeah … Nats fan in St. Louis) in St. Louis rooting for the (cough) Cardinals.

After watching him these first couple of months, I don’t think it was lip service at all. I can’t put my finger on why it’s worked out so perfectly. It’s possible that all the Boras ties on the Nats roster play a role with how comfortable he immediately seemed in the clubhouse. Scherzer hasn’t only fit in on the Nats roster, but he’s immediately stepped in as kind of the class clown. He’s quickly become both a fan favorite and a favorite in the Nats clubhouse.

Keefe: What is wrong with Stephen Strasburg? Last year’s strikeout leader still has over a strikeout per inning, but he’s allowed 55 hits in 40 2/3 innings, has a 5.98 ERA and 1.648 WHIP.

I thought the Yankees dodged a bullet by not seeing Scherzer and also Strasburg in this two-game series, but maybe I should have wanted them to see Strasburg right now?

Meyerriecks: It hasn’t been pretty watching Strasburg so far this season. He did tweak his ankle in spring training, which led to him wearing a brace. This seemed to do a number on his mechanics a bit, which led to him leaving a start a few weeks ago with pain under his shoulder blade. He’s dealing with injuries and mechanical issues, and this seems to have done a number on his command. It’s a never ending cycle. The next time he has a rough start, we’re going to hear that he’s breathing out of the wrong eyelid.

I kid, I kid. The command and mechanics have been the major issues, but there’s also some small sample size noise in there. He’s allowed a .380 BABIP to this point so far this season. His career BABIP against is .304, and the league average is about .295. While his batted ball profile suggests that his BABIP should be a bit higher than we’re used to seeing (he’s allowing a 26.5 percent line drive rate!), there’s no way that doesn’t start to normalize some. When the BABIP starts to come down, so will the WHIP… and the ERA. The stuff has still been there, so hopefully he can get more comfortable (healthier?) and put the mechanical issues behind him.

Keefe: The Nationals started the season 1-4 and were 7-13 on April 27. But since then, they have gone 15-4, are now 22-17 and trail the Mets by one game in the NL East.

Before the season, everyone picked the Nationals to win the East and there were a lot of predictions for them to go to the World Series and win it. The Mets still don’t seem postseason-ready, the Marlins are in their usual state of disarray, the Braves are trying to rebuild and the Phillies are a disaster. The NL East should be the easiest of the six divisions to win, especially for a Nationals team that won’t endure long periods of losing because of their starting rotation.

Is there any doubt in your mind that the Nationals will win their division?

Meyerriecks: If you’d asked me this question two or three weeks ago, I might have had a little more doubt. The Nats are still the best team in the NL East. They were two or three weeks ago, too, but the early season slide had left the Mets banking an eight game lead. Even over five months, being eight games better than another good team is a difficult chore. With just one game separating the two after these past few weeks, there’s not much doubt in my mind that the Nats will overtake them and win the division.

The Mets are probably closer to prime time than many of us thought they were entering the season. Harvey and deGrom form a dominant 1-2 punch atop the rotation. Bartolo Colon has become one of my favorite pitchers to watch (even though I still curse Omar Minaya about that trade back in the day) in his old age. I hear that they have some Norse god that they brought up who is pretty good, too. While Harvey, deGrom, and Syndergaard will form an imposing front of the rotation, I expect them all to have a few rough stretches this season due to inexperience and (in Harvey’s case) fatigue in his first year back from Tommy John surgery.

The Mets offense and bullpen are real hit or miss, and I think that’s what will ultimately keep them from challenging the Nats for the division over the long haul. The Marlins are talented, but they’ve dug too deep a hole for themselves and just recently made their GM their manager. As an Expos holdover, it’s fun to watch Jeffrey Loria’s (new) team be a complete train wreck. The Braves have been kind of a nice surprise so far this season, but they don’t have the offensive depth around Freddie Freeman to sustain a run. The Phillies just need to find a way to trade away any of their players that are over 30 and maybe they’ll be competitive by 2019.

The Nats will take the NL East … no problem.