The Harper/Trout/Machado debate: why choose?

by Andrew Bailey

I think ESPN’s culture of sitting a few obnoxious personalities behind a desk and having them shout at each other about every middling, redundant sports story has has clouded our collective reason. Or maybe its that the rise in popularity of social media has made it too easy to rush to opinion — or, worse, to feel obligated to have an opinion about each and every thing. Let’s just step back and calm down, shall we?

One of the great things about being a sports fan is that there’s always a debate to be had. You can whittle even the slightest managerial decision down into a multi-faceted back and forth if you so choose. And often, these debates are civil, fun, and quick to be left in the rear view mirror. But sometimes the same topics get trumpeted so relentlessly that we’re driven to the point of exhaustion. Or, to keep from projecting my own neurosis onto you, I should say that I’m driven to the point of exhaustion.

Case in point: Yasiel Puig has played in 38 Major League games and yet everyone seems to have him all figured out already. Post a general question about him on your Twitter account and within seconds someone will tell you with utmost certainty that he will regress to a level well below that of a replacement player. Wait a few moments longer and someone else will insist that he hasn’t even hit his stride yet and will end the season with a statistical line unlike anything we’ve seen before. And while there’s a case to be made on either side of the argument (and for all the gray area in between), it’s difficult not to wonder if even having these debates — or at least having them with such regularity and ferocity — is just getting in the way of what we should really be doing, which is enjoying the talent of a player on a tremendous run.

At the very core of sports lies the basic principle that we, as fans, want to be entertained. If we’re not being entertained in some capacity, what are we doing here?

Of all the recent debates that have bun run through the sports world’s spin cycle, the one about our own Bryce Harper, the Baltimore Orioles’ Manny Machado, and the Los Angeles Angels’ Mike Trout is the one that’s left me feeling the most worn out. By now, you’re familiar with this debate. It’s pretty simple: three incredibly talented young players that, for whatever reason, every major sports media outlet has decided we, as fans, should be choosing between. Who would you start your franchise with? Which guy will have the better career? It was a fun and even reasonable discussion to have at first, but enough is enough. Do we really have to revisit it each month like its some kind of presidential approval poll or national census? It’s nauseating now.

In those three players alone, we — the entertainment seeking baseball fans of the world — have at our disposal a wave of talent that could end up defining an entire generation of the sport. They’re that good. And so why must we insist on focusing so heavily on which one we prefer over the other versus, say, watching them play as often as we can and enjoying what they’re doing on the field? If you ask me, we’re depriving ourselves of what matters most for the sake of an utterly meaningless argument that can provide only limited mileage.

The worst part about this argument is that it has urged on some truly asinine lines of logic. Every single time this contention is rehashed on television or the internet, some genius asserts that Harper’s no good because of “the way he plays the game,” implying that he plays too hard and, as a consequence, is too much of an injury risk. Just think about that for a moment. Here we have a baseball player with potential that compares to some of the greatest players to ever put on a uniform, and we’re faulting him for giving too much effort. Are the people spouting that nonsense the same ones who years ago bashed Manny Ramirez for practically walking down the first base line on ground balls in the infield? Because if we’ve reached the point where we’re casting stones at players who give minimal effort the same as those who give everything they have on every single play, then perhaps we should just pack it in now.

As far as I’m concerned, Harper has just as much a chance of getting injured as Trout or Machado. We’re talking about premiere athletes here, the oldest of which (Trout) will turn just 22 in August. Why are we even attempting to project their long-term health? Just look at a player like Ken Griffey Jr, who was maybe the most gifted ballplayer I’ve ever seen but lost so many opportunities due to injuries. To me, the “Harper plays too hard, he’s going to get hurt” angle is just a brand of manifest destiny. We should want our athletes — whether they play for our team or not — to have long, prosperous careers. Anything short of that is bone-headed.

The bottom line is this: I love watching Machado play baseball. Speaking purely to the defensive side of the game, I don’t think there’s a more enjoyable player to watch in the entire league. He makes even the most difficult of plays look routine in ways that I can’t recall since — I don’t even know — maybe Griffey, Torii Hunter, or Omar Vizquel. And this says nothing of the offensive prowess that his him on pace to challenge Earl Webb’s record for doubles in a season set way back in 1931.

And as for Trout, well, he pretty much single-handedly validates my subscription. As much as I love watching Miguel Cabrera bat, I don’t often see that he’s on deck and switch over to that game. But I do for Trout. I love that he can beat you in an infinite number of ways, I love that at any moment he can turn a routine single into an exhilarating double, and I bask in knowing that every single at-bat presents an opportunity to create an indelible memory. In my mind, even though I’ve long since found the team he plays for to be repugnant, he’s the most exciting player in baseball right now.

And it should come as no surprise that Harper — though he’s played in just 197 regular season MLB games — has already established himself as one of my favorite players. There’s no doubt it helps that he plays for the Nationals. But being in constant awe of his raw power, incomparable bat speed, and super-human baseball instincts goes long way too. There hasn’t been a player with a ceiling this high in many, many years. And that “run until they tag you” mentality that some smarmy baseball fans are quick to cite as a fault — or, worse yet, confuse for youthful arrogance? I love it.

It doesn’t matter which one of these guys I’d prefer as the centerpiece of my franchise. At least not now. It used to be — for a little bit, anyway — a fun conversation to throw my two cents into. But not anymore. In the context of this ongoing meditation, I couldn’t care less that Machado plays a premium position, that Trout has already amassed a borderline ludicrous statistical resume, or that Harper has been gracing magazine covers as the next great baseball icon since the age of 16.

I’ll tell you what: if you want to keep circling the drain with this debate, have at it. I’ll be busy watching all three of these guys play and enjoying every second of it.

ED. NOTE: This post is cross-posted and initially appeared on Red Porch Report.