Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper was called the best prospect of his generation when arriving in 2011. Three years later, his major league brethren say Harper's the most overrated player in the game.
ESPN the Magazine surveyed 143 players with 24 percent saying Harper is the most overrated player, versus 21 percent for Los Angeles Dodgers' Yasiel Puig and 14 percent for the New York Yankees' Alex Rodriguez. Rodriguez is now suspended, and certainly declining production and age no longer make him one of the premier players. But Puig hit .319 with 19 home runs during his first season -- that's overrated?
First, ballplayers can be jealous babies. They claim they don't want attention, but often feel jealous when seeing a crowd around another locker. Take that into consideration for any player poll.
Second, it's still too early to fully judge Harper. By age 21, he has 42 home runs, 260 hits and a .272 average in 957 at bats. Harper was playing well before he hit an outfield wall during a game against the Los Angeles Dodgers in May 2013. Because of the injury, he played only 118 games overall last season, but batted .274 overall and showed improvement from 2012.
Contemporary Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels has clearly outshined Harper so far. Trout, 22, has batted .314 in 1,271 at bats with 399 hits and 62 home runs. Harper isn't quite the game's best young player currently.
But judging historically, Harper's name often comes alongside New York Yankees outfielder Mickey Mantle, who entered the majors at 19.5 years old. For his first three seasons, Mantle batted .295 with 398 hits and 57 home runs. Seattle outfielder Ken Griffey Jr. also reached the majors by 19.5 and batted .299 with 478 hits and 60 homers during his first three seasons. Boston's Tony Conigliaro was 19.25 upon debuting and hit .273 with 405 hits and 84 home runs his first three years.
Harper isn't a superstar yet -- he needs to get his batting average up into the .290s before that talk. But he has a penchant for big hits and aggressive play, which sparks runs. Plus, Harper has one of the better arms in baseball. Opponents don't run on him regularly.
Maturity will help Harper grow, just as it did for Griffey, who blossomed in his mid-20s. Harper's strikeout total -- 214 during two-plus seasons -- needs to decline. He still chases a bad pitch, but who doesn't?
Give me 25 ballplayers like Harper and forget the World Series -- start thinking of conquering the world. The reason for his contemporaries saying he's overrated must surely come down to batting average. The entire Nats lineup seemed to be in a slump until August last season, and that can be contagious. If Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche hit well, so will Harper.
ESPN's poll also showed that only 7 percent thought Washington would win the championship versus 18 percent for the Detroit Tigers, 15 percent for the Dodgers, 11 percent for the Boston Red Sox and seven percent for the Atlanta Braves.
Detroit and Boston are in the American League, so Washington wouldn't compete against them until the World Series. It's fair to rate St. Louis the National League favorite, but Los Angeles always seems short, and Atlanta has two starting pitchers hurt.
Washington has a good chance to win it all during its third season with a solid team. Now, if Harper just blossoms ...