DALLAS -- Davey Johnson has never been afraid to throw a supremely talented prospect to the wolves and let him play against big-league competition while still in his teens. Johnson, you may remember, was a driving force behind Dwight Gooden's promotion to the Mets at age 19 despite the fact he had never pitched above Class A.
"I had to fight for a young pitcher, who was 19 years old in New York," Johnson said today, recalling his conversations with Mets GM Frank Cashen in 1984. "Just keep an open mind, and let's see what he does in the spring and then evaluate whether he makes the club or not. And after many conversations, I finally got him to agree to that. And the rest is history."
So it's not surprising Johnson is perfectly willing to let Bryce Harper compete for a spot on the Nationals' Opening Day roster this spring. The outfielder only turned 19 in October and has only 37 games of experience at Class AA, but he thrived against top competition in the Arizona Fall League and suggested perhaps he's close to big-league ready.
"I think he's pretty mature," Johnson said. "I don't look at him age-wise as I probably should."
But before you start gobbling up tickets for Opening Day with the expectation you'll see Harper roaming right field at Nationals Park, remember that Johnson's opinion on roster decisions only carries so much weight.
Mike Rizzo has the final say on who makes the club and who doesn't, and though the general manager isn't publicly ruling out the possibility of Harper on the Opening Day roster, it still remains a long shot for reasons related both to baseball to finances.
Rizzo has stated in no uncertain terms he prefers all prospects play at every level of the minors before earning their first call-up. Harper (who admittedly did jump straight from low-Class A Hagerstown to Class AA Harrisburg this summer) has yet to set foot at Class AAA Syracuse, so conventional wisdom suggests he's going to open 2012 there.
There's also the issue of Harper's still-raw skills in the outfield and his overall approach to the daily grind of professional baseball, things that should be learned in the minors.
"I think that the main thing is ... could he handle it mentally?" Johnson said. "And I think in his mind, he's already figuring to be starting on the club, if you ask him. I haven't talked to him, but I know that he's done everything in his whole life to succeed at a higher level and compete with the best."
I've previously outlined the financial incentives for the Nationals to delay Harper's debut until at least mid-June. The condensed version: Calling him up earlier would likely qualify Harper for "Super-2" arbitration status in 2015, potentially costing the Nationals millions of dollars they otherwise wouldn't have to spend.
Rizzo will have to consider all of that come March. Then he'll have to decide whether Johnson presents a compelling enough argument to include Harper on the Opening Day roster or not.
"Is he the best candidate out there?" Johnson said. "I mean, is he going to make our club stronger? ...
"I'm open for him competing for a spot, whether he can handle it or whether he makes it in June or July. I said in the spring, guys were asking me: 'When do you think Harper is going to get there?' I said I think he's going to have quality at-bats in the big leagues when he's 19. So, he's 19."