Bryce Harper may bat third for Nationals

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Davey Johnson says he figured out his everyday lineup weeks ago. He just isn't saying what it is yet.

"I'm not announcing my Opening Day pitcher yet," the Nationals manager said Wednesday. "[So] I don't have to announce my Opening Day lineup."

But if you have a sneaking suspicion it's going to feature a 20-year-old phenom -- some guy named Bryce Harper -- hitting third, well, you appear to be on to something.

On Tuesday, Johnson taped a lineup to his dugout wall back in Viera that looked like this:

Denard Span CF

Jayson Werth RF

Bryce Harper LF

Ryan Zimmerman DH

Adam LaRoche 1B

Ian Desmond SS

Danny Espinosa 2B

Wilson Ramos C

Chad Tracy 3B

"You saw the lineup the other day," the manager said to one member of his beloved Washington media corps. "If you didn't get any glimmer of hope, of what I was thinking …"

All right, so let's say that glimmer is what actually happens. Let's say Harper really does hit third all season, at 20 years old. Here's how rare that is:

• Over the past 97 seasons, according to baseball-reference.com’s fabulous Play Index, exactly one player that young has batted third in 100 or more games in any season. That would be Al Kaline, who hit third 152 times for the 1955 Tigers.

• And only three other 20-year-olds spent as many as 60-plus games in the three-hole in any season in that span: Arky Vaughn (89 games) in 1932, Cesar Cedeno (88 games) in 1971 and Ken Griffey Jr. (87 games) in 1990.

• Among the short list of young boppers who even did it for as many as 30 games in a season, you'll find these not exactly anonymous names: Mel Ott (58 games), Mickey Mantle (43), Hank Aaron (35) and Willie Mays (34).

So apparently, if you're anointed to do something like this at such a young age, you might turn out to be pretty special. But when Johnson was asked what he's seen in Harper that would make him a candidate to hit third at age 20, the manager reacted with one of his favorite themes.

"Why are you bringing up age?" he said, with a smile. "What does age have to do with it?"

Well, see above. But in the interest of advancing the conversation, we asked Johnson what he saw in Harper, with age factored out of it.

"He proved he can play up here last year," Johnson said, then recapped some of Harper's ups and downs. At which point he concluded:

"So he struggled a little bit up here. He's overcome that. He uses the whole field. He lays off bad pitches. He's a tough out. [But] a lot of it is, I like a lineup that makes it tougher [for the opposing manager] to do matchups."

And that, it's clear, is a big part of this.

"If I hit Bryce second, Zim third, LaRoche fourth, Werth fifth, what's wrong with that lineup?" Johnson asked. "Not as balanced. Makes it easier to control the matchups from the other dugout."

One interesting wrinkle to this lineup, other than the Harper factor, is that it could involve Ryan Zimmerman hitting fourth instead of LaRoche. Last year, LaRoche batted cleanup in 105 of his 148 starts, while Zimmerman hit fourth in zero starts (but batted third in all 144 games he started). So Johnson said he told Zimmerman the other day this might be a possibility.

"He said he didn't care," the manager reported, "just as long as Harper didn't drive in all the runs before he got up."

Hmmm. Sounds like old-age, pre-WAR thinking to us. But whatever. The important thing is that Davey Johnson has thought it through -- not that he isn't open to other options.

"If you come up with a better idea, Jayson," he said with a laugh, "throw it out there."

Oh, we will. Always glad to help.