During the course of the 2013 season I had many discussions and debates at just how costly a bad bench was for the Nationals. Even with the addition of Nate McLouth and the exit of Steve Lombardozzi there are improvements that need to be made, but when it comes down to it the individual members of the bench aren’t that important. The Nats went from having a 4 fWAR bench in 2012 to a -4 fWAR bench in 2013. That is an eight game swing. Give the Nationals even a replacement level bench and they would’ve been playing the Reds in a play-in game to play in a play-in game to make the playoffs as the Wild Card team. With a decent bench the Nationals would’ve been one of the Wild Card teams outright. A bench as a whole is important but the individual members are not.
Think of it this way. Mr. 25 for the 2012 Nationals was some combination of Mark DeRosa, Xavier Nady, Brett Carroll, and Cesar Izturis. Those four players combined for -1.4 fWAR. That was the 25th man of the 98 win 2012 Nationals. Even if Danny Espinosa hits at the same rate as he did in 2013 his defense alone will keep him from being a -1.4 fWAR player. This brings us to the real point of all this. If Danny Espinosa, Jamey Carroll, Mike Fontenot or whoever is a good 25th man on the roster they will be somewhere between a 0.0 and 1.0 fWAR player. If Bryce Harper is what he is projected to be in 2014 he will be five times as important as any of those players are in their most optimistic projections, and yet the most heated debate of the 2014 off-season has been about who should be the 25th man on the roster.
Bryce Harper had an interesting season in 2013. He got off to a raging hot start hitting .344/.430/.720 for the month of April and while that wasn’t going to sustain his numbers dipped considerably after bruising his ribs on the wall in Atlanta and later damaging his knee with a collision with the right field fence in LA. From May until the end of the season Bryce Harper hit .254/.351/.420. Better numbers than the guys that subbed for him when he was injured but a .771 OPS isn’t what is expected out of a player of Harper’s talents. The biggest drop came in his power and his hitting against left handed pitching. His main struggle was against breaking balls from left handed pitchers and with the knee injury that is perfectly understandable. Harper couldn’t wait and let breaking pitches travel in the way he would need to in order to hit them and hit them with the power as expected.
To further highlight the complete drop in power Harper suffered from the knee injury, he hit nine of his 20 homeruns in April. He simply couldn’t drive the ball over the final five months of the season. He is so strong and has such a good swing that he was still able to run into 11 homeruns, but if Harper had stayed healthy for 2013 his numbers would’ve been even more impressive and an .854 OPS is impressive from a 20 year old.
Harper’s age 20 season was nowhere near as historic as his age 19 season but he did increase his OPS from .817 in 2012 to .854 in 2013. Make no mistake about it Bryce Harper had a good 2013 season, but if he had stayed healthy it could have been better, and that is the real story of 2013. Expectations weren’t met for Harper, Strasburg, and the Nationals as a whole. They won 86 games. It was their second winning season out of nine seasons in DC and the fourteenth in franchise history. While back to back winning seasons pale to the World Series or bust expectations it is still an accomplishment just like having a .854 OPS in your age 20 season.
The thing about all this is if Harper can stay healthy, and there is no reason to believe he can’t, then the Washington Nationals season will hinge on his performance. He was predicted to be an MVP candidate before the 2013 season and if it were him with a .931 OPS and not Jayson Werth then perhaps he would’ve been, but Harper’s season took a significant downturn when he encountered walls in Atlanta and LA. Given Harper’s work ethic and desire to succeed there should be no doubt that he learned from that experience.
When it comes to judging how the 2014 season is going to go, who the utility infielder isn’t that important as long as there is one. How Bryce Harper does is. The Cardinals and Red Sox met in the World Series and they both had bench bats and even starters who were around 0 fWAR. Players like that are necessary to fill out a 25th man roster and the Nationals problem in 2013 was that they had too many bench players below that and didn’t have depth they believed in to make a move.
Danny Espinosa, Jamey Carroll, and Mike Fontenot have the skill set to be replacement level utility infielders if not better, but they are only the foundation of the roster. They need to be around that 0 mark in order for Harper’s contributions to matter, but they are completely interchangeable whereas if Harper struggles or can’t stay healthy in 2014 there is no replacement, and this alone should highlight while the success of the 2014 season hinges far more on Bryce Harper than whoever wins the honor to be the 25th man on the roster.