Spring teen-aged drama begins; can Bryce cut it?
Posted on: March 3, 2012 5:12 pm
Edited on: March 3, 2012 5:16 pm
KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Out here in plain Osceola County, the Nationals' teen-aged wunderkind slugger Bryce Harper started his first spring game, and thus began the great drama of March: Can Harper become a oh-so-rare 19-year-old to make a major-league team out of spring training, and not just any team but one that fancies itself a threat?
As for the kid himself, the lefthanded Harper is a threat whenever he holds that big bat of his and takes one of his patented swing-to-the-stars cuts, which is just about every cut. Harper is taking his biggest cut this spring in trying to accomplish what few have done by making a major-league team in spring before the age of 20. His clear goal this March, even though he hit only .256 in Double-A last year, is to make the Nationals as their starting rightfielder. And if the decision had to be made today and it was up to his manager Davey Johnson, he'd have a heck of a shot.
Johnson is trying to downplay his obvious interest in Harper so as not to slight any of the mere mortals on the team, but he's told enough people how much he loves Harper that he doesn't have to say a word now. You can only imagine how hard Johnson has to fight a smile whenever this kid takes BP; today, on a typically hot windy day, Harper was routinely launching them over the left-centerfield fence. "He's going to be a star. he's got power and discipline,'' marveled one National League scout. "I don't think he'll start the year with the (Nats), but I think he'll be up by August.''
Harper has been around baseball his entire life, so it's no surpise to hear him throw out the cliche about how he is "just trying not to do too much,'' but it's a slightly funny thing to hear after watching him swing like he's trying to ruin a baseball. Nationals executive Bob Boone remarked how he's never seen anyone swing so hard (he also runs hard every time, by the way). But Harper said, "I've always done that, since I was 7, 8 years old. Dad taught me to swing hard. Sometimes, I'm under control. Other times, I look like an idiot.''
The teen-aged phenom is willing to lay it out there, and this spring the goal is obvious; he wants to jump to the big leagues as a teen-ager like past wonderboys Al Kaline, Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr. and Andruw Jones did before him. He said he doesn't think about it when the game starts, and he went 1 for 3 in the opener here, singling off veteran ex-Nats pitcher Livan Hernandez, who unlike Harper has an unknown age. "If I play the game and do things right, I've got a shot,'' Harper said, flatly.
Harper knows that's true from all the scuttlebutt regarding Davey's desires. However, Johnson doesn't want this to become a Bryce Camp, and so Davey discourages too many questions along those lines. One query, about Jayson Werth playing center field Sunday, which is big part of the Harper equation since Werth would have to make the switch from right for Harper to make it, set Davey off on a half-serious riff about how questions about tomorrow's game are too much for him. When a more direct one about Harper possibly making the team came his way, Johnsson said, "I'm not going there,'' before going there. "To me, he deserves ... and I've said this since October ... knowing what we have in camp, he needs to get a look at making this club,'' Johnson opined.
Again, Johnson is trying mightily to hold his obvious enthusiasm, and he said very nice things about Brett Carroll and Rick Ankiel in his attempt to be democratic. But he can hardly hold back. "It's no secret we're looking for more of a lefthanded presence,'' Johnson said, "And he qualifies.'' Johnson helped bring up Dwight Gooden at 19, when he dominated for the Mets. Johnson also thinks the Nats are for real this year, so he doesn't want to waste games early. "Last year we were a pretender, this year we're a contender,'' Johnson said.
Some other longtime baseball people, though, say it wouldn't hurt Harper to start at Double-A, to work his way up to Triple-A and make his teen-age break-in in August or September (he doesn't turn 20 until October). But at least one other Nationals official agrees with Johnson, while others are saying they are at least ready to be convinced. "He has a chance to dominate,''' Nats exec Bob Boone said. "And if he dominates, he could make it tough on us.''
Harper was greatly disappointed he didn't make the team even last year at 18, then took it all out on Class-A pitchers by hitting .318 with a .977 OPS before having some ups and downs at Double-A Harrisburg. "Absolutely,'' he said when asked whether he was disheartened to be cut at last year's camp. He just started to get hot there when he hurt his hamstring. After only mastering Class-A, it woould be quite a leap to go to the majors indeed. But he dominated the Arizona Fall League, hitting .333 with six home runs in 93 at-bats while posting a 1.084 OPS as the youngest player in the league, before coming here, which got folks thinking. "Just to be able to have the opportunity and have everyone open to it, I'm really excited,'' Harper said. "I'm trying to make the situation hard for them.''
For Johnson, it seems like a pretty easy call (though he isn't saying so publicly, at least not yet). Harper is no dummy. Even someone as talented as him isn't averse to seeking a few brownie point.. "I love Davey. He's a fiery guy,'' Harper said. "It's great to be able to play for a guy like Davey.'' He hopes to play for him for real soon.