Bryce Harper unlikely to be sent down

One of the better storylines from the first month of the 2012 MLB season was the Washington Nationals, who now have a walking headline playing right field for them.

Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo admitted to the media that rookie phenom Bryce Harper is unlikely to be sent back down to the minors after the club called him up a week ago.

“We’re no dumb either,” Rizzo told the Washington Post. “This guy is performing admirably in the big leagues. We feel he’s got a chance to really impact the ball club. He’s a special talent. So you have to throw ordinary development curves out the window if you have to.”

Harper is currently batting .375 over his first 16 at bats and he’s shown off his rocket of an arm. He’s also playing extremely hard, most notably running out routine fly balls on the base paths. Say what you want about Harper being overly confident (also known as “cocky”), but the guy is “Charlie Hustle” out there right now.

The bottom line is that Bryce Harper is good for baseball. All good, young players are. And if he succeeds, he’s going to be great for the game for a very long time. Hopefully he’ll continue to rake, play good defense and flash speed on the base paths.

This game needs its budding young stars and it’s great that, at least for the moment, Harper is here to stay.

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Five Big Surprises Through the First Month of the 2012 MLB Season

With April now in the books, what were some of the biggest surprises through the first month of the 2012 MLB Season? I’ve outlined five shockers below.

Pujols suddenly can’t hit.
It’s not completely surprising that Albert Pujols is slumping at the plate to start the season. After all, midway through April last year he was hitting just .222 for the Cardinals with only one home run. But who could have predicted that Pujols would look this bad in his first full month with the Angels? He has zero home runs, is hitting just .217 and has collected only four RBI. He’s clearly pressing right now and it doesn’t look like he has a clue on how to shake out of his funk. He’ll eventually come around but thus far, his struggles at the dish have been national news.

The Cardinals’ pitching staff.
Who would have thought that Adam Wainwright would be the biggest issue facing the Cardinals’ pitching staff through the month of April? Entering Tuesday’s action, Wainwright was sporting a 0-3 record with a 7.32 ERA. Meanwhile, Kyle Lohse and Lance Lynn are both 4-0 and Jake Westbrook is 3-1 with a 1.30 ERA. In fact, Wainwright is the only Cardinals’ starter that has an ERA over 2.78. When Wainwright eventually figures it out (and he will), and Lohse, Lynn, Westbrook and Jaime Garcia continue to pitch as well as they have, the Cardinals will be extremely tough to beat in the National League again this year.

The Washington Nationals are in first place.
Ask the Pirates – being in first place after the first month of the season or even at the All-Star Break (as Pittsburgh was last year) doesn’t mean squat. But the Nationals have been fun to watch regardless. Adam LaRoche has been fantastic, as he’s leading Washington in average (.329), home runs (4), RBI (17), OBP (.415) and total hits (27). But the other story has been the Nationals’ pitching, as four of their five starters have ERAs south of 2.00. The organization just brought up rookie phenom Bryce Harper too, which virtually guarantees that the Nationals will be relevant for a little while longer.

The Tigers aren’t in first place in the AL Central.
Blame the media for this one. Once the Tigers signed Prince Fielder last offseason, everyone just assumed that the rest of the AL Central would just roll over and play dead. But while the Tigers have had issues with their starting pitching, the Indians (11-9, first place) and White Sox (11-11, tied for second) have played well. Justin Verlander continues to be the rock of the rotation and Drew Smyly has been a pleasant surprise, but Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer have been disastrous. Porcello is currently sporting an ERA of 6.45 while Scherzer’s ERA is an abysmal 7.77. It doesn’t matter if Fielder and Miguel Carbera continue to hit the snot out of the ball – if the Tigers’ pitching doesn’t come around then there could be an upset brewing in the AL Central.

The Dodgers have the best record in the NL.
Ah, the power of Magic. Apparently all it took for the Dodgers to start playing well was for them to be sold. Los Angeles is currently sitting atop the NL West standings at 16-7, which includes a dazzling home record of 10-2. Matt Kemp has been ridiculous through 23 games, leading the league in batting average (.417), home runs (12) and RBI (25, tied with Texas’ Josh Hamilton). Better yet for L.A. Andre Ethier (.276, 5 HRS, 24 RBI) is actually contributing as well. If the pitching continues to be as good as it has (Clayton Kershaw is 2-0 with a 1.78 ERA while Chad Billingsley is 2-1 with a 2.64 ERA), then the Dodgers will prove that their hot start isn’t a fluke.

The Nationals are finally poised to compete

In the entire history of the Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals, they’ve made just one playoff appearance, which happened so long ago that Mark McGwire probably doesn’t even remember being drafted by the organization that year. (1981 for those scoring at home.)

Since then, the Expos/Nationals have been a study in failure. Sure, there were those few years in the early 90s when the team was competitive under Felipe Alou, but for the most part the organization has been riddled with bad luck and underperformance.

Until now, that is.

Am I ready to crown the Nationals as my pre-season pick to win the NL East? No, but I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if they earned a Wild Card bid – especially with a playoff team being added in each league this year. Their starting rotation is excellent, their bullpen is solid, and their offense should be improved from what it was a year ago. Assuming their core players stay healthy, there’s no reason to think the Nats can’t challenge an aging Philadelphia squad and a club in Atlanta that has managed to choke in pressure situations the past two seasons.

It’s hard not to love Washington’s starting rotation. Stephen Strasburg is coming off Tommy John surgery but he and Jordan Zimmermann flat out throw gas. Gio Gonzalez was one of the more underrated pickups from this offseason and Edwin Jackson helped the Cardinals win a World Series title last season. Assuming he isn’t traded at some point, John Lannan is a pretty damn good fifth starter. In fact, all five of Washington’s starting pitchers could finish with ERAs south of 4.0.

That said, the offense will make or break this club in 2012. Outside of Ryan Zimmerman, not one hitter in the Nats’ projected 2012 lineup will hit for average. There also isn’t a 100-RBI man on the roster, unless Zimmerman and Jayson Werth (who had a brutal debut last year with the Nationals) overachieve.

But the 2010 Giants showed that offense isn’t everything, especially if you can make it into the postseason. Plus, it’s a pitcher’s game now and the Nationals aren’t short on arms this season. We’ll just have to see if they have enough offense to give themselves a shot to play past October 3.

Either way, this isn’t the same Nationals’ club that finished fifth, fifth, fourth, fifth, fifth, fifth and third since moving to Washington in 2005. This team appears ready to compete.

Strasburg strong in return

Washington Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg pitches against the Los Angeles Dodgers during the first inning at Nationals Park in Washington on September 6, 2011. This is Strasburg’s first Major League game since undergoing Tommy John surgery last September. UPI/Kevin Dietsch

Stephen Strasburg pitched five shutout innings in his first Major League game since undergoing Tommy John surgery last September.

Stephen Strasburg met every reasonable expectation, and exceeded several ridiculous ones, in his nearly flawless return to the major leagues Tuesday night at Nationals Park.

Where’s the rust or the lost command? Who returns to the big leagues after 382 days away for elbow surgery with more precision and better efficiency than when he left? Who fans one Dodger on a 99 mph fastball, barely allows an audibly struck ball in five innings, but has the touch and finesse to fan both Matt Kemp and Andre Eithier on 90 mph change-ups?

It’s amazing how far we’ve come with Tommy John surgery.

Bryce Harper could benefit from toning it down a notch

Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper watches batting practice before a MLB spring training game against the New York Yankees in Tampa, Florida, March 5, 2011. REUTERS/Steve Nesius (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT BASEBALL)

In a Class A South Atlantic League on Monday night, Washington Nationals top prospect Bryce Harper hit a home run to right-center field, stood at home plate to admire the longball before making his way around the base paths and then blew opposing pitcher Zach Neal a kiss while trotting down the third base line.

If you only read that opening sentence, then Harper sounds like immature teenager who is only holding himself back when it comes to advancing through Washington’s minor league system. If you hear the rest of the story then…Harper sounds like an immature teenager who is only holding himself back when it comes to advancing through Washington’s minor league system.

Some fans are giving Harper a free pass because apparently Neal was the one who said something to the outfielder as he made his way around the bases. In other words, Neal provoked Harper to blow him a kiss and therefore, Harper was somewhat justified in what he did. (Never mind the fact that Neal only scolded the young outfielder because Harper stood at home plate to admire his home run.)

But whether or not you like Harper’s cockiness or are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt because he’s so young, it doesn’t change the fact that actions like these will only hold him back in the long run.

Look, he’s a teenager and teenagers make poor decisions. That’s just the way it is. Let’s keep in mind that Harper is only 18 and isn’t benefiting from going off to college to mature for four-plus years. He’s been the center of attention for years now and is already a millionaire before his 21st birthday.

But the point is to see this kid play in the major leagues as soon as possible. And whether he was provoked or not, blowing kisses at an opposing pitcher doesn’t give the Nationals confidence to promote him. They’re not just looking for a star player – they want Harper to be a solid clubhouse presence as well. How can they rely on him to be a well-rounded player if they breeze him through the minors without teaching him what it’s like to be a professional ballplayer first?

Some people can take or leave baseball’s “unwritten rules.” Personally, I favor some and think others are rather ridiculous. (For example, not being able to steal when you’re up by X amount of runs in the late innings. Hey, man up and throw those runners out if you don’t want them taking a free 90 feet on you.)

But whether you’re in favor of those unwritten rules or not, it doesn’t change the fact that baseball has always been a game that polices itself. Granted, times have changed and Major League Baseball has cracked down on retaliation plays. But if Harper doesn’t cool it he’s going to find a couple of fastballs in his ribs. I’m one of the few who appreciates an athlete’s cockiness but at the end of the day, showing up a pitcher isn’t beneficial to anyone – especially for a youngster like Harper who is trying to make his way to the big show.

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