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Nationals camp report: Harper decision might make all the difference

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Harper needs to show the Nats he is well worth keeping around for the start of the season. (AP)  
Harper needs to show the Nats he is well worth keeping around for the start of the season. (AP)  

VIERA, Fla. -- The Nationals say it's all about winning now.

They say it in a way that makes you think they believe it. They want people to take them serious as a team that could -- even should -- make the playoffs.

"If we don't [contend], I haven't done my job," manager Davey Johnson said.

"We expect to win, and we expect to be playing in October," said closer Drew Storen.

And if 19-year-old Bryce Harper proves this spring that he's ready to help the Nationals get to October and the Nationals still don't keep him on the opening day roster, then the front office hasn't done its job.

They say they will. They say they're "open-minded" about Harper making the team this spring, and they say the decision will not be money-related.

Good, because if the Nationals are telling their players it's time to compete for the title in the tough National League East, they can't follow it with the contradictory message that they have to do it without a guy who gives them a better chance to win.

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"I don't think there will be a contradiction," general manager Mike Rizzo said.

Is Harper ready?

No one can say that with certainty in the final week of February, but the early spring results have been good. He looks as talented as ever on the field, and he seems more comfortable and mature off it.

"A lot of guys respect the way he plays," Storen said.

They also like the way he works, and they like the way he came to camp this year saying he wanted to do less talking and more listening.

Not that Harper is ever going to turn into a shy kid.

"I'll get better at that big-league level," he said. "I might make a mistake, but I'm not going to make it twice. If I make it in May, I won't make it in September."

He knows the opportunity that's in front of him, and he says with complete confidence, "I feel like I can help this team."

He knows his baseball history, and when I mentioned Al Kaline's name, there was no blank stare. Yes, he was well aware that Kaline won a batting title.

"At age 20," Harper said. "Who doesn't know that? Winning a batting title at 20? That's special."

Kaline, who was in the big leagues at 18 and was a regular at 19, knows who Harper is, too.

"I hope they give him a chance," Kaline said. "If I could do it, more guys could. From everything I've read, he's a super talent who will be a big star in this game, if he stays healthy.

"I look forward to talking to him."

Kaline knows that the baseball world of 2012 is much changed from the world of 1954, when he broke in with the Tigers. The increased attention brings increased pressure.

Fantasy Writer
Bust ... Jayson Werth, OF: Leaving a homer-friendly ballpark in Philadelphia behind, many expected Jayson Werth to have a down year in 2011, but the worst may be yet to come. Park factors may have worked against Werth with his move to Washington but even before he signed with the Nationals he was facing a steady decline in his home run per flyball ratio. While Werth's home run power seems to be evaporating the 46 doubles he hit in 2010 was merely an outlier as he has never hit more than 26 in a season barring that one year. He can still provide 20-plus steals with a decent on-base percentage but at this point in his career Werth is no more than a low-end No. 3 Fantasy outfielder.
Impact 2012 rookie ... Bryce Harper, OF: As the top hitting prospect in all of the minors it's no secret Bryce Harper has a chance to be one of this year's highest-impact rookies in Fantasy. Manager Davey Johnson wants Harper to be on the opening day roster but even if he starts the year in the minor leagues it shouldn't be long before he is patrolling right field in Nationals Park. The bigger question is how well he can perform against big league pitching at the tender age of 19. While he could struggle, Harper has made quick adjustments at every level so far, most recently in the Arizona Fall League. He may not be drafted in many standard mixed leagues but Harper will be difficult to get off waivers once the season begins. It's worthwhile to draft him as a late-round flier now, provided you can stash him on reserves to start the season. -- Al Melchior
Depth Chart | Nationals outlook | 2012 Draft Prep

"He's going through more than I did," Kaline said.

But in other ways, Harper has it much better.

"I was not the most welcome person in camp," Kaline said. "Nobody would go to dinner with me. I was basically isolated. I had a guy grab me by the shirt and say, 'Don't ever talk to me. You took my friend's job. You shouldn't be here.'"

The baseball world isn't like that anymore. Harper speaks glowingly about the way the Nationals players have treated him.

"Oh, they've taken me in, done so many things for me, telling me about the game," he said. "They joke around with me, and that's great."

Those teammates won't say right now whether Harper should be on the team, but they seem ready to be convinced this spring that he belongs.

If he shows them that -- on and off the field -- then the Nationals have little choice but to keep him.

I know the arguments against it.

By keeping Harper in the minor leagues for a month, they could delay his free agency by a year. By keeping him there longer, they could possibly delay his arbitration eligibility and potentially save millions.

I know that the Rays have regularly kept players off the opening day roster for exactly those reasons, and that they won in 2008 even after sending Evan Longoria out (for what turned out to be just the first 10 games).

I also know that two years ago, the Braves allowed 20-year-old Jason Heyward to make the team out of spring training, and ended up making the playoffs by a single game.

Without Heyward's big April, they likely would have missed out.

Harper believes he'll get a true chance.

"If I'm one of the 25 who can help this team win, I think they'll give me a shot," he said.

His teammates trust that he's right.

"I have all the confidence in the world that they'll make the right decision," Brad Lidge said. "Look at the talent in this room. You've got to trust them."

Look at the talent in that room. Look at the opportunity the Nationals have. Look at what they expect.

And next month, when it comes time to make the Bryce Harper decision, look closely at how they make it.

He doesn't need to be on the team regardless of how the next four weeks go. But if it's about winning now, and if he shows he's ready to help, then the decision should be obvious.

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