Nats spring storylines: Harper's quest

Nats spring storylines: Harper's quest
February 17, 2012, 1:50 pm
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With pitchers and catchers due to report Sunday, we've reached the home stretch of the offseason. All week, we've counted down the five biggest storylines facing the Nationals at spring training. Today, it's storyline No. 1: Bryce Harper's quest to make the Opening Day roster...

Every step Bryce Harper has taken in the last three years -- obtaining his GED at 16, getting drafted with the No. 1 pick in the country at 17, playing in the Arizona Fall League and at Class AA at 18 -- has been with a single purpose in mind: Reach the major leagues as quickly as possible.

Throughout the three-year stretch, though, that notion had existed only in a conceptual mode. No matter how well he performed on the field, Harper had never been under actual consideration for a big-league debut.

Until now.

When Harper arrives in Viera next week for the start of spring training, he'll at last have a realistic opportunity to crack the Nationals' Opening Day roster. It's still a long shot. But it's not a zero shot, especially with manager Davey Johnson involved in the decision-making process.

"I'm open for him competing for a spot, whether he can handle it or whether he makes it in June or July," Johnson said earlier this winter. "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."

Johnson can lobby all he wants for Harper's inclusion on the 25-man roster, and his opinion does carry significant weight. But this decision ultimately will be made by general manager Mike Rizzo, who has always espoused a cautious approach with young talent.

Rizzo has all along said he prefers his prospects to establish themselves at each level of the minors before earning a promotion. He already made a slight exception to that rule last year with Harper, having the outfielder jump straight from low-Class A Hagerstown to Class AA Harrisburg on July 4. But the leap from Class AA to the majors is more dramatic, especially considering Harper played only 37 games for Harrisburg last summer before having his season cut short by a hamstring injury.

So a stint at Class AAA Syracuse would seem to be part of the grand plan for Harper, even if that stint is ever so brief.

As was the case with Stephen Strasburg two years ago, the Nationals could opt to keep Harper in the minors until mid-June, at which point they would ensure he does not achieve "Super-2" status and potentially cost the club millions of dollars in salary arbitration down the road.

The "Super-2" deadline, though, seems to be less important to the Nationals with Harper than it was with Strasburg. The date to pay closer attention to this time might just be April 27.

Why April 27? Because if the Nationals wait until then to promote Harper, he'll have spent at least 21 days in the minors and thus won't be credited with a full year of big-league service time in 2012. That would ensure he cannot become a free agent until after the 2018 season. (If Harper debuts before April 27 and doesn't spend more than 20 days in the minors at any point down the road, he would be eligible for free agency after the 2017 season.)

Top club officials insist those service time factors will not play a role in mapping out Harper's debut, but it's difficult to imagine the Nationals wouldn't be interested in keeping him in their uniform at 25 rather than risk losing him via free agency at such a prime stage of his career.

None of this, of course, has anything to do with Harper's actual on-field performance. That, above all else, will determine when he makes the club. And there are plenty of members of the organization, from the coaching staff to the front office to the roster itself, that can't wait to see how he performs this spring against big-league competition.

The Nationals got a taste of what Harper can do at this level one year ago, when as an 18-year-old in major-league camp he went 7-for-18 with three doubles and five RBIs. But most of those at-bats came late in Grapefruit League games, against fringe prospects and middle relievers.

This time around, Harper figures to see considerable more action and figures to start plenty of exhibition games in right field, alternating with Jayson Werth (who as a veteran probably won't play back-to-back days early in camp). So the Nationals will get a clearer idea of Harper's progress and how he stacks up right now against major-league pitchers.

Club officials, though, already have a good idea about Harper's on-field progress. They know he can play, and they know he's very close to big-league ready, if not already there.

But there's still one more factor Rizzo will consider when determining Harper's fate sometime next month. It has nothing to do with his baseball skills. It has nothing to do with his contract status. It has everything to do with his mental readiness for life in the majors.

Harper's maturity level has been questioned and analyzed ad nauseam, and every word he says or tweets is scrutinized like he's a candidate for president of the United States, not right fielder for the Washington Nationals. Such is life when you're on the cover of Sports Illustrated at 16 and have made it your mission to reach the big leagues as quickly as humanly possible.

Nationals officials were less concerned about Harper's actions last season than most outside observers. They addressed a few matters with him but didn't feel they warranted excessive scrutiny.

But they will be paying close attention to how Harper comports himself in a big-league clubhouse and on big-league fields this spring. He needs to convince not only Rizzo and Johnson he's ready to play at this level, but also the roomful of major-league veterans he'll dress alongside every day.

Respect is everything in this game, and if Harper's teammates don't feel like he respects his place as a 19-year-old kid among men, they'll let him know it.

Suffice it to say, there will be no shortage of eyes watching Harper's every move this spring, from the clubhouse to the practice fields to the Twitter-verse. He's always been comfortable as the center of attention, to the point of craving it at times.

Harper has spent the last three years putting himself in a position to make the big leagues at 19. Now that the opportunity is presenting itself at last, it'll be up to him to convince everyone around him he's ready to make the leap.