Posted on: February 3, 2012 12:12 pm
Edited on: February 3, 2012 1:53 pm
Nationals manager Davey Johnson has been telling anyone who'll listen he wants slugging teen-aged phenom Bryce Harper to start the season with the big-league team. And while most folks around baseball think that's a reach, Johnson may getting through to some people -- in fact, the very people making the call.
"We're take a look at him and see where he's at developmentally. If we feel he's ready to play at the major-league level, we're not going to restrict him,'' Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said by phone. "We'll be cautious yet open-minded. If he gives us the best chance to win, we'll keep an open mind and see where it takes us.''
While Harper is universally viewed as one of the best prospects in baseball, he is only 19, and skeptics outside the organization don't view Harper's immediate ascension as very likely. One said, half jokingly, "It just gives Davey something to talk about.'' Others pointed to Harper's .256 batting average at Double-A Harrisburg (Pa.) last year as evidence he needs another year of seasoning. Harper also slugged just .395 at Harrisburg after tearing up Class-A to the tune of a .318 batting average and .977 OPS to start his pro career.
Putting all that aside, everyone wonders whether the Nats would want to start Harper's arbitration and free-agent clocks so early. Angels phenom Mike Trout played in the big leagues at 19 last year, and the research of Danny Knobler of CBSSports revealed several other players to play in the bigs at 19 in recent years, including Jose Reyes, Adrian Beltre, Karim Garcia, Wilson Betemit and the Upton Brothers, but Andruw Jones as the last position player to break camp with a major-league team at 19 when he did it for the Braves in 1997 (Felix Hernandez is the last 19-year-old pitcher to break camp with a big-league team.).
There is also a suggestion that the Nats are willing to say that he may make the team because they want to provide extra incentive for Harper to show his best during spring training. Though by saying publicly he can play his way onto the team, that also, puts pressure on them to make good on the promise. Regardless, that isn't deterring Rizzo.
"If he gives us the best chance to win, and (we) feel he's fully prepared to play in the big leagues, he'll make the team,'' Rizzo said.
There is a lot of excitement around the Nats after their additions of Gio Gonzalez, Edwin Jackson, Brad Lidge and others. While the Phillies remain the favorite in a strong National League East division, the Nats look like a bona fide contender. Washington looked hard at Prince Fielder but ultimately spent on pitching, which fits Rizzo's defense-and-pitching plan. (While they were in on Fielder almost until the end, they are believed to have held the line on years and are believed to have been outbid by at least three others, including the winning Tigers.)
"We feel good about where we're at,'' Rizzo said. "We feel we've strengthened two parts of the team. We have a better, deeper more well-rounded rotation and we've improved a strength in the bullpen by adding a veteran presence.''
The key to Jackson are the innings he brings. Rizzo said that's because pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg is on a pitch limit, Jordan Zimmermann has never thrown 200 innings and Chien-Ming Wang is a couple years removed from shoulder surgery. Jackson will receive $11 million for one year, with $9 million of it actually paid in 2012 and the other $2 million next year.
Though Rizzo is a pitching-first guy, the lineup, which is anchored by Ryan Zimmerman, Michael Morse and Jayson Werth, still looks still looks strong. It will look that much stronger if, as Johnson envisions, Harper can tap his potential immediately and play his way into the Opening day lineup.