Monday, September 28, 2015

Bryce Harper, Jonathan Paplebon and the Nationals disaster

Bryce Harper (right) is pulled away from Jonathan Papelbon
in the eighth inning Saturday in Washington.
Bryce Harper is 22 and having a monster season for the Washington Nationals. As disappointing as the Nats have been, Harper is the overwhelming favorite for the National League MVP award.

Jonathan Papelbon has been one of the game's better closers for almost a decade. He's prolific enough a saves artist that he harbors ambitions of catching Mariano Rivera's career mark.

Washington has here two giant egos who clearly don't like each other very much. Sunday's dugout scuffle, in which Papelbon grabbed Harper by the throat purportedly because Harper didn't sprint to first base on a popup, was a vivid illustration.

This isn't about how hard Harper ran or about a veteran policing professionalism. This has its roots in (a) the massive disappointment that has been the Nationals in the second half and (b) the Manny Machado incident of a week or so ago, when Papelbon decided to throw at the Orioles star and Harper in the postgame declared. "It's tired. I'm probably going to get drilled tomorrow."

As it turned out, Buck Showalter, the Orioles manager, quashed any notion of immediate revenge-taking (which doesn't mean it won't happen next year). The point is: Harper called out Papelbon for his stupidity, and as Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post says in this piece on the meaning of Sunday;s tussle, "the fuse had been lit to a tinderbox player."

Boswell last year inaccurately derided Harper as the seventh-best player on the Nats. He is no Harper apologist, but the overwhelming consensus appears to be on Harper's side in this dispute.

During the runup to the trade deadline, I floated here the notion of the Twins acquiring Papelbon. That notion was based on a wildly inaccurate reading of Papelbon's motivations and contract, and I am quite pleased two months later that Papelbon isn't in Minnesota.

The Nats probably wish now he wasn't in Washington either, but they're stuck with him for another year, having guaranteed his overpriced option for 2016.

Washington figures to have a lot of roster turnover this winter, including manager Matt Williams. This is one team where the single most important quality of the next manager is going to be his ability to handle giant egos. Baseball history is replete with managers who ran their careers aground on such rocks.

I never thought I'd say this again, but this might be a team that would benefit from having Dusty Baker as its skipper.

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