Though he's not producing nearly as much as he did during the first two months of his big-league career, Bryce Harper is making positive contributions to the team with the best record in baseball. Just look at his 4-for-8, 2-homer weekend against the Mets.
But Harper's offensive production has turned painfully inconsistent. Just look at his last three nights against the Braves (2-for-13, six strikeouts).
Look, any 19-year-old (no matter how talented and brash) is going to struggle at times in the major leagues. And Harper continues to do things few teenagers have ever done in this game before. But make no mistake, he is struggling right now, and he might just be hurting the Nationals more than he's helping them.
Owner of a .210 batting average and .279 on-base percentage over his last 59 games, Harper is putting up numbers worse than anyone on the Nationals roster who isn't a catcher or pitcher. And it's not just the numbers; it's his poor approach at the plate, which was painfully noticeable the last three nights.
It's no secret opposing pitchers have figured out the book on Harper: Feed him almost exclusively offspeed stuff down and away and watch him chase those pitches out of the strike zone. Which he's doing in spades. Worse, when someone does decide to bust him inside with a fastball, Harper doesn't look ready for it and often takes it for a strike.
In short, he's guessing at the plate instead of using his natural abilities and keen batting eye to react to what he's being thrown.
"He's just overly aggressive, overly aggressive, trying to put a big charge in it," manager Davey Johnson said. "He wasn't quite that aggressive early, and now he's going through a little slump. But he'll make adjustments. He'll get through it."
The question is whether Johnson can continue to let Harper get through it on a daily basis.
If the Nationals were out of the race and playing for the future -- as they were each of the last six seasons -- there'd be no debate. Harper would play every day and gain valuable experience.
But this team finds itself in a pennant race, trying to hold off the Braves in the NL East and perhaps post the best record in the NL and secure a Division Series matchup with the one-game wild-card winner plus home-field advantage straight through the World Series.
Can the Nationals afford to use the No. 2 spot in their lineup on a rookie mired in a two-month slump?
The situation is complicated all the more by the production the Nationals are getting from two other, less-hyped rookies. Steve Lombardozzi has 18 hits in his last 33 at-bats, including pinch-hit singles in each of the last three games. Tyler Moore owns an .883 OPS over his last 43 games. The more-experienced Roger Bernadina has a .909 OPS over his last 29 games.
Should any one of those guys get at-bats in place of Harper?
"I always think about all those things; that's what my job is," Johnson said. "It's my job to try to find ways to get these young guys ... now that I've got a regular lineup, I'll have to try to get them in. Nothing has gone on in my head on how to do it yet."