The majority of Washington Nationals' outfielder Bryce Harper's at bats came in the three-hole last season, where the 2010 no.1 overall pick had a .268/.374/.504 line, 14 doubles, 14 HRs, 43 walks and 61 Ks in 71 games and 302 plate appearances. From the time Matt Williams took over on the Nats' bench, the former major leaguer and first-time skipper has been asked where he plans to hit the 21-year-old outfielder in 2014.
"I want to put him in a position to succeed," Williams told SportsTalk 570's Thom Loverro and Tim Shover last November. "So, I like him, depending on who's pitching, of course, and matchups and all of that stuff, I like him 3-4-5. I like him somewhere in the middle of the order where he can produce runs."
Exploring the idea further, Williams said he might want to take advantage of Harper's speed.
"Sometimes if he's three and say Jayson [Werth] is four and [Ryan Zimmerman] is five," Williams said, "the natural tendency is to not let him run because you're one swing away from a two or a three-run homer. But, I think that also gets you in trouble sometimes. So maybe five is best, I don't know. We're going to [figure] that out in Spring Training and see and you certainly talk to Bryce and find out where he's most comfortable and allow him to be free and play."
Harper was the two-hole hitter for 117 of the 139 games he played in 2012, with a .270/.337/.448 line, 20 doubles, nine triples, 20 HRs, 48 walks and 107 Ks in 525 plate appearances for the NL East Division winners.
By the time Williams talked to 106.7 the FAN in D.C.'s Danny Rouhier and Grant Paulsen in January he said he'd spoken to Harper about his preference.
"I asked him during one our conversations where he's most comfortable?" Williams told the show's hosts. "He said he likes two. He likes three. He's hit four, and of course he's hit leadoff. He may hit five sometimes depending on who is on the mound for the opposing club and what kind of matchups are there. But, I would like to establish roles for guys certainly and I'd like to establish places in the lineup so they can feel comfortable when they walk in on any given day, that they have an idea of where they're at."
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In a conversation with reporters from Spring Training on Wednesday, however, Williams said that having the lineup set every day is ideal, but rarely possible.
"I come from the era where you had a pretty set lineup," Williams explained. "These days it jumbles a little bit. Sometimes it shuffles around. I would like to get them in a spot that they feel good. The hope of every manager, especially a first-time manager, is to say, 'Guys, it's going to be this way and don't even bother looking at the lineup card when you come in the clubhouse, because you're going to hit this spot. When in reality, that doesn't happen."
Williams' thoughts on where Harper will hit haven't changed much.
"I think it depends on matchups certainly," he reiterated. "Again, if we've got -- given all that we've said today, if we've got a tough matchup for him, we may put him in a different spot to allow him to do some other things. Again, with all the things that he can do on the basepaths, defense and giving him the opportunity to be free to play. I can see him two. I can see him three, four. I can also see him five a lot, which is an interesting spot. So I think we'll examine all of those and we may see him hitting in a number of different positions in Spring Training just to get a feel for where he's most comfortable.
"I think back to my day and the five spot is a really nice spot. It allows him to get freed up a little bit. He's not necessarily worried about running in front of the three-four guys, if he's hitting two. There [are] a lot of cleanup RBIs there and it may provide protection for the three-four guys as well depending on the matchup, right/lefty. Two is certainly a spot that he can hit in. He's done that. He's led off as well. He's hit three. So, all of those spots play. So we'll see. We'll experiment a little bit in spring and find out where he feels good."
Though he's not sure where Harper will hit just yet, Williams is convinced there's room for improvement for the third-year outfielder and work to be done this spring.
"That's why we're here," he said. "We're here to help him sharpen his skills and get him to a point where... I would like to see him get to a point where he's a legitimate MVP candidate. I think he's got the ability to do that. When that may happen, we don't know..."
"He's going to get better and better. Right now it's the tip of the iceberg I think. I think there's a lot more there."