Bryce Harper could be Nationals' leadoff man

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Batting leadoff ... Bryce Harper?

Washington Nationals manager Dave Martinez is open to the idea.

"Maybe," Martinez said on Thursday, one week before Opening Day. "We'll talk about it, play with it. Before I do it, I'll definitely have a conversation with him."

That's exactly what Martinez did last Saturday, when Harper hit leadoff in a Grapefruit League game against the New York Mets, his only time batting first this spring.

"I said, 'How would you like leading off?'" Martinez said. "He looked at me and he goes, 'Yeah, I wanna do it.'"

One of the game's most powerful hitters, the 6-foot-3, 220-pound Harper spent most of last season batting third. Despite missing six weeks due to a knee injury, he hit 29 home runs in 111 games. In 2015, when he became the youngest player ever to be voted unanimous MVP, he led the National League with 42 homers. That year, he made 94 starts from the 3-hole and hit cleanup 59 times.

For his career, Harper has made 16 starts out of the leadoff spot, with all 16 of them coming during the 2013 season. A .274 hitter that year, Harper posted a .317 average as the leadoff hitter and had a .419 on-base percentage.

Although he has batted second 151 times in his career, he has only done so 34 times since his rookie season, including 10 times last year under former Washington skipper Dusty Baker. As for Baker's replacement, he likes the idea of one of the game's premier hitters getting as many chances to bat as possible.

"What if he got up there five times in one game?" Martinez said of Harper. "You look at all those things. When you feel like you're going to have a low-scoring game, why not have one of your better hitters have a chance? All of a sudden you're in the ninth inning and you have one of your best hitters on deck that doesn't get up. I always think about that."

He also likes the idea of Harper putting pressure on the opposing pitcher right from the outset.

"Maybe you want to try to create something early, create some excitement. What better excitement than having Harper lead off with a homer?" Martinez said. "We'll preach a lot about scoring first. Teams that score first, it puts a lot of pressure on the other team, especially with the lineup that we have."

Martinez, who's in his first year managing, comes to D.C. with a reputation for being analytically minded. The 53-year old former outfielder spent the past 10 seasons serving as bench coach for Joe Maddon, who's known for having one of the game's most innovative minds. The last three of those seasons came in Chicago, where sluggers Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant were used increasingly toward the top of the Cubs' lineup.

Rizzo, who hit 30-plus home runs in each of the past four seasons and had never batted leadoff prior to 2017, served as the Cubs' No. 1 hitter 14 times last year. Bryant, who clubbed 39 homers during his 2016 MVP season, made 110 starts last season as Chicago's No. 2 hitter.

Nationals outfielder Adam Eaton, who missed most of last season with an ACL injury, is projected to be team's regular leadoff hitter this season, with speedster Trea Turner expected to be the primary candidate to bat second.