Saturday, February 27, 2010

Harris conflicted by bench role

VIERA, Fla. -- Willie Harris is conflicted. On one hand, he understands his role with the Nationals is to come off the bench, to serve as a utilityman capable of playing five different positions at a moment's notice. On the other hand, he believes with all his heart he could be an everyday player for this team, and he doesn't understand why nobody's willing to give him that shot.

"I mean, I know I don't even have a chance to win a job," he said, looking around a Nats clubhouse that now includes designated starters at every position in the field. "It kind of takes away the extra momentum, as far as spring training goes. I don't even have a chance."

Does that bother Harris?

"Yeah, it bothers me a little bit," he said. "It tells me a few things. When they don't include your name as far as a competition goes, that means: 1) They either don't think you're good enough, or 2) They think you're really, really good at what you do, being a utility guy. So it can go both ways.

"I look at it like this: They feel like I'm a really good utility guy. And that's the decision they make. You deal with those decisions. And I'm cool with that, as far as my job goes. But on a personal level, it pisses me off, because I want to play. But I'm not the type of guy who goes around saying: 'Hey, give me a shot. Give me a chance.' That's not me. But it irks me to know, on a personal note, you're not even being considered. That's what bothers me."

A veteran of nine big-league seasons now with five different clubs, Harris has long since accepted his place in the game. Once a highly touted second baseman in the Orioles' system, he couldn't produce consistently enough in his early years, then showed an ability to play the outfield with aplomb, convincing GMs and managers across baseball he was best-suited as a utilityman.

And Harris, 31, is fine with that. He really is. He's made a nice living off his versatility, and prior to 2009 earned the first multi-year contract of his career: a two-year, $3 million deal with the Nationals.

But there's also a competitive fire inside this 5-foot-9 pistol from Cairo, Ga., that drives him to want to be better. There's some swagger, too, the kind that comes from the knowledge that whenever he's been called upon by the Nats the last two years, he's delivered more often than not.

"I do accept my role, and I know my role," he said. "But I mean, if you find a utility guy in the game who's happy with being a utility guy, something's wrong with him. Don't think for one minute that I don't want to play. It's in me. I want to play. But I also know my job and I also know what my role is."

For two years, Harris has done whatever Manny Acta or Jim Riggleman asked him to do. Play for weeks at a time in center field. Give someone a day off at second or third base. Pinch-hit in the seventh inning with Washington trailing by a run and needing somebody to get on base and ignite a rally. Take over for Adam Dunn or Josh Willingham in left field with the Nats clinging to a one-run lead in the ninth.

And he's done it well. His batting average (a combined .243 the last two seasons) is nothing special, but his on-base percentage is a sparkling .354, he's produced 62 extra-base hits (including 20 homers) and he's made more than his share of highlight-reel plays in the field.

But during an offseason that saw the Nationals make a concerted effort to shore up their middle infield, Harris' name never came up as a possible answer.

"I don't feel like they even considered me as the second baseman," Harris said. "I don't even know if it came across somebody's mind. I don't even know if they said: 'Hey, we got Willie. Let's give him a chance.' I don't know if that happened. Nobody ever told me it happened."

It didn't. After watching a merry-go-round of unspectacular second basemen -- Anderson Hernandez, Alberto Gonzalez, Ronnie Belliard, Pete Orr, Alex Cintron -- take turns plugging the hole, general manager Mike Rizzo made a strong push to sign free agent Orlando Hudson. When Hudson chose to go to Minnesota, Rizzo immediately settled for 34-year-old Adam Kennedy.

Truth be told, Harris has always been more reliable in the outfield than at second base, and there may not be a team in baseball willing to make him an everyday infielder.

So the Nats will once again try to find ways to squeeze Harris into the lineup on a semi-regular basis, though it's going to be tougher this year compared with the previous two. With Kennedy entrenched at second base, Nyjer Morgan in center field and Willingham in left, it's going to be tough for Riggleman to give Harris the 345 at-bats he's averaged since coming to Washington.

"That's a lot of at-bats for the person who's in that role, but that just shows how important he was to us the last two years," Riggleman said. "It's a challenge for Willie to maintain the quality of at-bats if the at-bats are fewer, but Willie's one of those guys, he just finds his way into the game. We need Willie, and we need to try to keep him sharp. I don't think any team goes into the season saying that guy's going to get 350 at-bats. But if the other guys stay healthy, we've got to get Willie as many games as we can to keep him sharp."

Harris, who admittedly found himself facing the same dilemma entering 2008 and 2009, knows something's bound to happen that opens the door once again. Someone will get hurt. Or someone will get traded. Or maybe he'll be the one dealt to another club.

Until then, the guy who's not valuable enough to start but too valuable to cut loose will keep preparing himself for that moment when his number is called and his chance to make a difference has come.

"When it's in the ninth inning and we're winning by one run, Willie Harris is going to be on the field," Harris said. "That's what I take pride in. That's what gets me going. That's what I like doing. There's nothing better than saving a run for, say, [John] Lannan, who has just thrown eight innings. There's nothing better for me. I love it. Ain't nobody else can do that. ... I'll be on the field, somewhere."


Anonymous said...

If you don't like Willie Harris, you hate America.

He's not a superstar, but he's just ridiculously awesome. He's the Warrick Dunn of baseball.

Hope we keep him around for a long time.

Mike said...

Great story. I've never made a secret of being a Harris fanboy.

And, by the way, I'll reserve my own judgment on Kennedy being "entrenched" at 2B after I've seen him there for 40 or 50 games.

JCA said...

Harris may have one of the best value contracts in baseball. He is a superior defensive LF capable of playing center and infield. His OBP is above average. He'd be an ideal depth player for a contender because he can fill in so many spots and conserve roster slots. Glad we have him, and maybe even looking forward to what we get for him.

Sam said...

@JMW4th: I completely agree with you. Willie Harris is truly an awesome person.

The thing is, Willie has been above average at bat coming off the bench. That is very hard to do. But he has never been a great defensive second baseman. And last year, he was not good in center field. Until 2007, he had never been anything more than bench player level. He has definitely gotten better (1.7 WAR in 2007, 3.3 in 2008, 1.0 in 2009). He just isn't good enough to start everyday.

Positively Half St. said...

I have been impressed by what the stat-heads have said about harris. It is almost enough to make you ask them to trade Willingham (for a SS!) and put Willie out there.

My first memory of Willie Harris was in Atlanta 2 1/2 years ago, when he was playing for the Braves. I took my Mom to Atlanta very belatedly for her 70th birthday. The Mets were in first place, preparing for the epic dive we didn't see coming. She is a rabid Mets fan, as I had been as a kid and young adult. The Nats were too good an opportunity to pass up, with my own family stationed here.

Anyway, as we watched Atlanta lose to the Mets, a really drunk Atlanta fan kept calling for Willie Harris to come in and replace an older player the Braves had in the outfield. I forget who that player was. In any case, no amount of begging or alcohol could get this guy to shut up, and when Harris came in, this guy was rapturous. Willie played a great game with a few plays when he came in.

I was excited when the Nats got him, even though drunk obnoxious people usually don't make the best scouts.

fourteenthandotis said...

Great piece on a great player - I love Willie Harris and hope he's a Nat for life.

natsfan1a said...

Nice piece, thanks.

Put me down as a Harris fan-gal. In addition to aspects of his game already mentioned, I love the energy and work ethic he brings. PHS, when I started reading your comment and saw that the game was versus the Mets, I just knew Harris would have made some good plays. He seems to save some of his best defensive gems for them. Riggs definitely needs to get him in the games versus them. :-)

peric said...

I think I was at that Mets and Braves game ... no, I wasn't "the drunk" ... ~smiles~

peric said...

Not sure if Riggs/Rizzo would agree with the sentiment but definitely the quote of the day from Nats320:

"Some other player yells out: 'Elijah you need this instruction more than anyone. How many times did you get thrown out on the bases last year?'"

"Dukes: 'Dawg, if you don't get thrown out, you are not trying hard enough.' (Laughter all around)"

Anonymous said...

Just a few short weeks ago, you guys were scoffing when it was suggested that Nats320 might provide some of the same information that you're paying for from Zuckerman. Now, you're gleefully quoting from Nats320 in Zuckerman's blog. What a surprise.

NatsNut said...

Oh, yea. I read this nodding my head the whole way through. Doesn't surprise me a bit because I think he's one the most underappreciated player on the team.

Frankly, I'm a little offended too. Here's this guy who was shuckin' and jivin' all over that outfield, anytime they asked, making outstanding plays and having fun while he was doing it. He was seriously THE MAN until he got shoved into the shadows when Nyjer's bright light showed up. Far as I know, Willie never said a word.

And very good point about 2B. His name never came up once. First time I heard it was at the STH luncheon. Although Riggleman did say at the time that Willie was under the radar but very, very valuable, I don't think Willie heard it.

Now here's all this buzz about everyone BUT Willie. I'd be wondering if I were chopped liver too.

I don't doubt for a second that he will still be awesome but I don't blame him for wanting a little appreciate every now and then.

peric said...

Must be An Borisca Mor again?

I have never scoffed at Nats320? She seems genuinely more interested in the socialization human interest side of baseball. So, her posts are pretty much always decidedly different? Plus a lot of photos? What's not to like?

Anonymous said...

Nats320 is a tool. Did you see him hopping around with the ELijah Dukes bat he got "for free" today. Good thing JayB wasn't there to witness it.

I will give Nats320 some credit though, he quickly took the advice/critcism about the hyper narcicisism on his site and is down to 1 to 2 photos of themselves in their Blog posts now and only a little ego boosting although this is vintage Nats320:

Nyjer Morgan was being followed around camp today for a special to air on MLB Network. He was wired for sound. He continually kept telling the camera crew--"You've got to check out The African Queen!! She's right over there." Whereupon, when Nyjer came jogging over to his next workout session--grabbed Sohna and stated before the camera--"This is The African Goddess. She is one of our biggest boosters--comes to every home game. Yeah Baby!! How about that!!" Then continued his jog over to the next field.

He reminds of the kid in school who didn't stand out so he would lie and make up stories and brag about his life. Kind of sad.

Anonymous said...

Funny, though, isn't it? Even though you guys hate Nats320 so much you still read him and are still quoting him here. I guess Mark Z is not meeting all your Nats needs after all.

Anonymous said...

Oh, go soak your head.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous at 8:38, are you Jeff from Nats320. It is fairly obvious.

You have read the criticism and have tried cleaned up your act. My vote is that your Blog is unreadable because you are full of it.

I watched you today. Like we believe from 100 feet away with all the background noise that you could hear Nyjer Morgan telling the camera crew "He continually kept telling the camera crew--"You've got to check out The African Queen!!"

You are full of it. What, do you have super powers to hear that from 100 feet away. You bother the players where there body language tells the story as you corner them. In my opinion you lack journalistic integrity because I believe you make up some of your stories like the Nyjer thing to sensationalize your Blog. You snowed the Nationals Brass and obviously others and it is good you are being outed here.

Did someone really do a fake Twitter account about you or was it you pretending to be you so you could whine and grab more attention. I read what was on that page you showed and there was nothing bad so whats your deal with that.

I would like to see Mark Z. do an expose' on the real story. It would be a story of fan becomes a true fanatic while trying to get team celebrity status.

Anonymous said...

Nats320 is full of hot air, I used to think his blog was informative until I sat near him at a Spring Training game and he later posted that he spoke with player a and player b from his seats while the game was being played and that was an out and out lie, he left after the 2nd inning because his queen was too cold!

markfd said...

I like Wille Harris and do not blame him for wanting to start, he is right everyone in the majors and the minors for that matter are playing the game to play everyday in the majors.

Anonymous said...

Say what you will about Nats320, but he's got some nice video of Strasburg pitching from the windup and the stretch over at his site right now. Who cares how he managed to get it? It's there for all to see.

peric said...

My god we are all having zeitgeist crises over the Nats ... existentially permuted DC baseball fans ... I wonder if Riggleman is a member of that club?

Mark Zuckerman said...

Folks, can we please try to keep the comments relatively on topic and not turn this into anonymous bashing of other sites/blogs/posters? I really would like to keep this open to anyone to comment, even anonymously, but if things continue down this direction I may need to reconsider.

alm1000 said...

Big Willie fan. Thanks Mark, enjoyed the story.

alm1000 said...

Good luck Mark trying to keep the Nats blogosphere civil.

Traveler8 said...

What Mark said!

Unknown said...

I happen to be a fan of 320 and the community is enriched by the promotion and activities they cover. I'm not entirely sure why anyone would want to pick on them. How sad and pathetic you have to be establish an agenda to hurt such people. They cover the charities, they cover the community, they enjoy their boosterism. If you don't like that, stop visiting their site.

Anonymous said...

no big deal Mark. It's just one random guy hiding behind anonymity to stir up trouble and antagonize your blog.

you tend to get that when your blog is popular. its probably some guy from Nats Journal who feels threatened by this blog's presence for some inane reason.

Personally, I think the more blogs, the better. and with Kilgore upping the quality of coverage at the Post, Zuckerman here, Goessling at MASN, Bill Ladson on Twitter, I think we're finally at a level of baseball coverage that is standard for a MLB city.

I'm enjoying all of it immensely.

I don't think it is a matter of "Zuckerman is better than so-and-so". The more, and better coverage we get, the more we fans win out. It's a competition(for you guys), but it isn't a competition(for us). If that makes any sense.

Anonymous said...

People go ANON so they wont get retribution from Nats320. There record stands on its own merit.

I wont put words in Mark's mouth so I wont. I personally have a problem with journalistic integrity. Thats all I am saying.

Natbiscuit, congreatulations to you. I was there and there was no way they could hear a word Nyjer was saying through the wind and background noise. No way, no how.

Mark can attest to the background noise. Nyjer did walk over to them eventually as they flagged him down. Observing them was a ton of fun as you watch them write there blog and you can compare notes.

Anyway, it was a great day watching Strasburg pitch today. The pool of reserves is thick. Duncan, Morse, Bernardina, Maxwell and Willie.

Anonymous said...

I happen to be a fan of 320 and the community is enriched by the promotion and activities they cover.

I'll just say that I vehemently disagree.

but then again, i really don't see the worth in spending more than a minute fussing about it. Or going from blog to blog bashing the guy.

I simply don't read his blog, and leave it at that. I read the blogs that I like, and I don't read the ones I don't like. And that's how it should be.

Section 3 my sofa said...

Willie Harris once caught a fly ball before it was even hit.
All your base are belong to Willie Harris.

The entitlement of posting anonymously is greatly over-rated.


Anonymous said...

also, I would welcome a change here to where you had to be logged in to post comments, so long as the comments are not screened(I hate that).

Anonymous said...

Chuck Norris went to go put Baby in a corner...but Willie Harris had already put her there.

Anonymous said...

Willie Harris is the mlb equivalent of the nba 6th man. JT in SC

natsfan1a said...

Thanks, Mark. FWIW, as mentioned previously, I am one who enjoys the Nats320 blog. As JMW notes, we're all free to choose which blogs we visit (or don't). Speaking only for myself, I don't have a problem with those blogs that screen comments.

And back on topic (sort of) I liked this, sec3: All your base are belong to Willie Harris.

Those were the days, eh? :-)

Positively Half St. said...

When the ninth inning arrives this season, and Matt Capps is sent out with Nyjer Morgan and defensive replacements Willie Harris and Willie Taveras behind him, I wonder if that will put more or less pressure on him? Less, because that will be a pretty fast outfield to save him from mistakes, or more, because Taveras has been put into the batting order if he blows the save?

Anonymous said...

Love Willie Harris' role, but is he wearing his House?

natsfan1a said...

You just had to go there, sec3 (and save me the trouble of posting it). :-)

Kevin Rusch said...

Look, Nats320 is just a different kind of site. It's clearly NOT a journalistic affair - it's a fanboy writing about his adventures. What's wrong with that? You're not paying for it, so if you don't like it, type something else in your address bar.

As for Willie Harris -- i think this sentence says it right:
"After watching a merry-go-round of unspectacular second basemen -- Anderson Hernandez, Alberto Gonzalez, Ronnie Belliard, Pete Orr, Alex Cintron -- take turns plugging the hole,..."

If this were a team with a laundry list of issues longer than its ability to address them, then sure, look at WHarris as the 2b. But if he doesn't work out, you're right back where you started, another year later. And this year, they had the money, and were tired of stopgaps/experiments/make-do. I'd have done the same thing. It sucks for Willie, sure, but it's in the best interest of the team.

Just sayin'.


Anonymous said...

I was at the Marlins game last Sept when Willie led off the 9th with a first pitch homer to bring the Nats within one so Zimm could win it with a walk off.

But he isn't a defensive upgrade at 2nd, as much as I love him as an outfielder and utility guy. Remember the cringe-inducing grounder he stopped without using his hands last year, as an unfair example.


Anonymous said...

I'm a native White Sox fan so I'm extremely familiar with WH and everything he brings to the table. He is ridiculously athletic, has the right attitude and is a clubhouse leader. He was an extremely important member of the Sox 05 run and I would want WH on my time. Wish the team would give him the shot he wants, but hey, that's the breaks.

Big time WH fan here.

Will said...

I had posted this over at FJB, but figured it was relevant to the article...

Instead of using Harris at 2B, where he is not good defensively, we need to use him in LF, where his defense is historically good. Like Franklin Gutierrez good.

Over the 815 PA he's gotten over the past two seasons, Harris has been worth 4.1 WAR. That alone makes him immensely useful. Comparatively, Damon has been worth 6.6 WAR in 1249 PA. If Harris had received 1249 PA, he'd have been worth 6.3 WAR.

On top of that, Damon spent the large majority of his time (86%) in LF, his best position. Harris spent only 46% of his playing time in his best position, LF. As a result, Harris' value is being underrated. Had he spent all his time in LF, he'd have been worth 1.5 more wins, and that's in just the two half seasons he's played over the past two years.

Had he started in LF, playing about 150 games in each of the past two years, Harris would have been worth 8.7 WAR! To put how ridiculous this is into perspective, of all LFs in baseball, Harris would be the 4th best. Only Matt Holliday (12 WAR), Manny Ramirez (9.3) and Ryan Braun (8.8) were better.
That puts Willie Friggin Harris above Crawford, Damon, Ibanez, Bay and so on. He'd also be better than other notable players, such as Sizemore, Figgins, Markakis, Miguel Cabrera, Howard and Morneau.

There's some problems with these calculations, such as expecting Harris to keep up the same offensive and defensive production over 300 games. However, besides Harris' ridiculous 30.9 UZR in LF in 2008, none of the other figures are too far fetched. Even using his career UZR in LF of 18.6, he'd still have been worth 7.4 WAR over the past two seasons, which puts him amongst the Victorinos, McLouths and Grandersons of the world.

Harris is a fantastic player. In fact, he's the best OF we have. No wonder Harris is unhappy with his bench role.

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