Nationals manager Matt Williams: “I’ve got Bryce’s back, in every way”


Matt Williams met with Bryce Harper yesterday and then made a concerted effort to diffuse any notion of perceived animosity between the Nationals manager and his 21-year-old star.

“I’ve got to let you guys know something: I’ve got Bryce’s back, in every way,” Williams said prior to the Nationals’ game against the Rockies. “And that will not change.”

The relationship between Harper and Williams was called into question after the outfielder openly questioned Monday night’s lineup, which had Harper (just activated off the DL) batting sixth and in left field, with Ryan Zimmerman moving back to his old position at third base.

Harper said he believed Zimmerman should remain in left field, with Anthony Rendon at third base and Danny Espinosa at second base. Without expressing it explicitly, Harper suggested he would rather play center field, with Denard Span the odd man out in the Nationals’ suddenly overcrowded outfield.

Williams talked to Harper afterward and made it clear he’s simply trying to put the young slugger in the best position to succeed and help his team win.

“I want him to play every day, and I want him to play the way Bryce knows how to play,” Williams said. “He’s going to hit in different spots in the lineup, and he’s OK with that. And he’s going to play in different spots in the lineup, and he’s OK with that, too.

“I know there’s a lot made of it, and I know there’s a lot of discussion about it. But he and I are good. There’s no rift. We have a conversation every day. I’ve got his back, and I support him all the way. I’m happy to write his name in the lineup every day. Who wouldn’t be?”

Harper didn’t make himself available during pregame media availability in the Nationals’ clubhouse.

Teammates seem less concerned with what Harper says and more concerned with making sure he stays healthy and productive, as he was during Monday night’s win, in which he reached base twice, drove in a run and made two impressive throws from left field.

“He brings a lot of energy to our team when he plays this way,” shortstop Ian Desmond said after Monday’s game. “The way he went about his business today, putting pressure on the defense, made a good throw back to first base there … that’s the kind of stuff that he does. When he plays, he impacts the game. But we need him out there every day.”

Williams echoed those sentiments yesterday, saying he’s not concerned with how other players might have perceived Harper’s comments.

“No, I let him know that I support you, that part of my job is to do that and that I admire his talents and the way he plays the game and how happy we are to have him on our team,” Williams said. “That’s the extent of it. That will not change, and there’s no problem between he and I, certainly. There never has been. I respect him, he respects me. Like I said, I’m really happy to put Harper in that lineup every day. Because it gives us a very good chance to go out there and win a ballgame.”

2018 Preview: Oakland Athletics

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2018 season. Next up: The Oakland Athletics.

The A’s have finished last in the AL West for three straight years. If you believe the folks at Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus and anyone else who makes projections, they’ll either finish in last again or come within a game or two of it. There’s not a lot of suspense to my prediction here — I’ll end up picking them to finish fifth — but the prediction is not really what a preview is about. It’s about the shape of the team and what we can expect in broad brushes.

While I can’t foretell greatness for the 2018 Oakland Athletics, I can’t say the broad brushes are bad. At least if you grade on a curve. It won’t be a good team, but they’ll be worth watching because they have a lot of good, fun and interesting players who are likely to be on that next good Oakland A’s team in the way Stephen Vogt and Brett Lawrie were not.

Their lineup is pretty spiffy for a second division team. Khris Davis, Matt Joyce and new acquisition Jonathan Lucroy are known commodities both inside and outside A’s fandom, but people who don’t pay much attention to the goings on in Oakland may not be fully aware of just how good and promising Matt Olson and Matt Chapman are. Olson hit 24 homers in 59 games last year. That’s not a sustainable pace — the league will figure him out to — but even regression from that will be fantastic. Chapman hit 14 in half a season and played superior defense at third base. He also struck out 92 times in half a season but who’s counting? [editor: everyone counts everything in baseball]. Hey, look, dingers! Yonder Alonso and Ryon Healey are gone from last year’s crew and Stephen Piscotty is new in town. Marcus Semien is a decent bat for a shortstop. All-in-all that’s a lineup that will play, and play very, very well if Chapman and Olson are what they’ve shown themselves to be thus far.

At the risk of criminal understatement, allow me to observe that the starting pitching is not as promising. Sean Manaea and Kendall Graveman are at the top of the rotation. On good teams they’d be in the middle or the back. The rest of their rotation options — Daniel Mengden, Andrew Triggs, Paul Blackburn, who will miss the start of the regular season with a sore forearm — are less-than-impressive. They just signed Trevor Cahill and Brett Anderson from the scrap heap hoping, I guess, to recreate some of that, uh, 2010 magic? 2010 was a long time ago!

Jharel Cotton would’ve been in the mix but he’s now out for the year for Tommy John surgery. A.J. Puk, the A’s top prospect would be a nice midseason upgrade, but he’s hurt. Not seriously, but the A’s will probably be more careful with him now than they would’ve been, which still would’ve been careful. All-in-all, there was a lack of quality arms to begin with, but with the injuries mounting, starting pitching could be a trash fire for the A’s.

The bullpen has a new look with newcomers Ryan Buchter, Yusmeiro Petit and Emilio Pagan joining 2017 in-season additions Blake Treinen and Chris Hatcher. That’s a pretty good and pretty interesting group which was going to see a lot of innings as it was in our new bullpenning era, but now that the rotation looks shaky as hell, they’ll see even more. If you’re curious about the limits of leaning on a bullpen, postseason-style are, Oakland will be running a pretty fun experiment to that end in 2018.

I look at this club’s bats — especially the young guys upon whom its so very easy to project so much promise and optimism, because I’m a sucker for hitting prospects — and think that they can outperform those statsy projections and be better than the Rangers and Mariners. Then I think about how the upside — UPSIDE! — for the rotation is 380 innings from Trevor Cahill and Brett Anderson and I sorta wanna cry.

If the A’s get some breaks and some unexpectedly good (or average) pitching performances, they could certainly finish above the cellar. Perhaps well above the cellar. For now, though, I’m guessing that they’ll be in 80-win territory at best and finish last in a division that does not have any teams totally punting, making for a competitive and, subsequently, tough year.

Prediction: Fifth place, AL West