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Will Nationals’ slugger Bryce Harper bounce back in 2017?

What led to Bryce Harper’s down year in 2016? Was it injury, an inability to adjust? The Nationals are hoping Harper can bounce back this season...

Division Series - Los Angeles Dodgers v Washington Nationals - Game Five Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Before the Washington Nationals acquired Adam Eaton to play center, manager Dusty Baker was asked if he considered moving Bryce Harper to center field if the Nationals acquired a corner outfielder?

“I don't know. We haven't discussed it, really,” Baker told reporters when he spoke at the Winter Meetings.

“Bryce can play it. At this point I would rather him not, just speaking honestly. That's a lot of wear and tear.”

“I would just as soon him stay out there [in right field] and hit and throw people out,” Baker added.

A few hours later, the Nationals deal with the Chicago White Sox was announced.

GM Mike Rizzo was asked where the Nats intended to play Eaton, who spent time in center, but shifted to right in 2016 with the Sox.

“We see him playing center field at least for us in the short-term,” Rizzo said.

“In the short-term, he certainly is capable of playing center field very well.

“He's an outstanding corner outfielder, it gives us, again, the flexibility to do different things.

“He can play multiple positions, which several of our players can and he's performed admirably throughout his entire career.”

For now, it seems, Harper will remain in right field.

According to’s Buster Olney’s yearly rankings, Harper’s still considered the second-best right fielder in the game.

Olney released his latest Top 10 list this morning, ranking the best right fielders in baseball and Harper landed at No. 2 on the list in spite of his struggles last season.

ESPN’s analyst did spend a significant portion of the write-up discussing Harper’s struggles at the plate last season:

“[Harper] is a diligent student of hitting, so undoubtedly he felt what everybody in the industry saw: an anxious slugger whose right shoulder seemed to turn too soon in his hitting mechanics. He was flying open in his swing, to use professional jargon, and that left him in a terrible position to hit.”

Harper finished the 2016 campaign with a .243/.373/.441 line, 24 doubles and 24 HRs in 147 games and 627 plate appearances, over which he was worth 3.5 fWAR, down from a .330/.460/.649, 38 double, 42 HR, 9.5 fWAR season in 2015.

Why did Harper struggle? As Olney notes, the Nationals, “... vehemently denied reports that Harper was dealing with shoulder trouble.”

Harper’s agent, Scott Boras, as quoted by AP reporter Howard Fendrich, acknowledged this winter that there were some issues Harper was dealing with, though he didn’t go into detail.

"Certainly Bryce played through some nagging injuries,” Boras said.

“Not anything that was of permanence. And a lot of time, when ... you have a strained muscle, it affects your neck and what you're doing and things. But I don't think Bryce is the kind who wants to come out and talk about excuses."’s Tom Verducci, who cited sources who said Harper was dealing with a shoulder issue from June on, wrote earlier this month that the Nationals’ outfielder, “... hurt his upper right shoulder, near the neck area, diving headfirst into a base,” during an early June series in Milwaukee after which his OPS dropped and Harper started, “... playing an extremely shallow right field to compensate for diminished arm strength.”

As Verducci too noted, Harper, “... never acknowledged being physically compromised,” though he points out that the right fielder, “... could not hit velocity at the belt and above, and opposing teams kept pounding at that weakness.”

“Harper hit .178 on four-seam fastballs at the belt and above. The previous year he hit .371 off those same pitches. Something was clearly wrong,” Verducci wrote.

Harper was listed among a group of outfielders due a bounce back after down years last season in Verducci’s post, and Olney noted that evaluators asked to assess right fielder’s league-wide evidently, “fully expect Harper to return to his baseball-bashing, hair-flipping self,” since, “none placed him lower than second,” on their lists.

Count Harper’s manager among those who believe he’ll bounce back in 2017.

“Harper will rebound,” Baker told reporters this winter. “He’s young enough where we’re not real worried about Harp. And soon the pride factor will come into it.

“You don’t like seeing those down years on your bubble gum cards. But everybody is capable of a down year and in modern baseball it’s like you’re never supposed to have a down year. There are years where all balls fall in and there are some years where every line drive is caught.

“I don’t anticipate him struggling like that, probably ever again. Because once you’ve struggled and once you know the signs of struggling, then once you’ve done it, then you’ll know how to kind of combat it.”

If he wasn’t injured last season, as the Nationals insisted, he wasn’t able to adjust to what opposing pitchers were doing and combat it. Will Harper bounce back to 2015 form, or at least his career averages before last season (.289/.384/.517) in 2017?