Zuckerman: Harper impressed but has much to learn

Zuckerman: Harper impressed but has much to learn
March 12, 2011, 11:15 pm
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Saturday, March 12, 2011, 6:15 p.m.
By Mark Zuckerman
Nationals Insider

Bryce Harper showed up for his first spring training as a professional ballplayer questioning anyone who tried to tell him the chances of making the Opening Day roster as an 18-year-old were completely unrealistic.

"Why can't it be realistic?" he said three weeks ago inside the first-base dugout at Space Coast Stadium. "Why can't I come in here and think that I can make this team? I've exceeded expectations my whole life. Everybody said I couldn't do it last year at the College of Southern Nevada. I know this is a totally different level, totally different people, and I respect that. But I'm going to make their decision hard. I'm going to come out here every day and play like I can, and until they send me down to minor-league camp, I'm going to try to make it hard."

Did Harper, optioned to low-Class A Hagerstown on Saturday afternoon, actually make the decision difficult for the Nationals? Did his performance in 13 Grapefruit League games -- a .389 batting average, three doubles, five RBI -- make team officials pause for a moment and question whether he might actually be ready for the big-time?

No, not at all. Make no mistake, they were impressed with what they saw out of a supremely talented but still very raw teenager playing alongside established major leaguers 10-to-20 years older than him.

But general manager Mike Rizzo had his plan for Harper in place from day one, and nothing the kid did on the field was going to change it. Whether Harper went 18-for-18 or 0-for-18, he was going to get shipped out to minor-league camp sometime in early-to-mid March. And no matter what, he was going to begin his minor-league career in Hagerstown.

There's certainly every reason to believe Harper will dominate the low-Class A South Atlantic League, where he'll find a handful of other top prospects fresh out of high school or college but mostly minor-league roster filler. The majority of guys who play at this level don't advance up the ladder very far.

But the Nationals need to actually see Harper dominate at the lowest level of the minors before they promote him. Let the kid enjoy some success. Let him endure the rigors of long bus rides and poor facilities and the everyday grind of life in the minors for a while. Then, once he's established he's too good for the league, promote him one level up to high-Class A Potomac.

How long will it take before that happens? One month? Two months? The All-Star break? No one knows for sure. Rizzo has a plan in mind, but really this all depends on Harper's performance. If he dominates, he'll earn his promotion sooner than later.

The Nationals learned plenty about Harper during his two weeks in the Grapefruit League. Physically, he looks like he belongs with big-leaguers. If you didn't know any better, you'd never have guessed the 6-foot-3, 225-pound outfielder was the youngest player in uniform.

Mentally, Harper looks like he belongs as well. He's got a very advanced understanding of the game, whether breaking down video of his swing mechanics or learning how to play right field after growing up primarily as a catcher.

And he's got as much pop in his bat as anyone on the Nationals' major-league roster. On more than one occasion this spring, Harper smoked high-and-outside fastballs to deep left and left-center fields, the kind of opposite-field power reserved for only the game's very best.

But he's by no means a finished product. Harper may be able to connect with a big-league fastball, but he has all sorts of trouble with big-league breaking balls right now. The smarter pitchers he faced fed him a steady diet of sliders and curveballs and change-ups down and away, knowing the aggressive Harper would swing and miss nearly every time.

That, more than anything, is the reason Harper needs to spend some significant time in the minors. You don't just show up to a big-league ballpark at 18 and have the ability to hit offspeed pitches. It takes months (and usually years) in the minor leagues learning how to detect those sliders and curveballs and change-ups, learning which ones to swing at and which ones to lay off.

Harper will learn, don't you worry. He'll probably pick it up faster than just about anyone who's ever come up through the minors. But he does need to learn it at that level before he's ready to succeed at this level.

What will his eventual timetable be? An educated guess would have him at Potomac sometime in late-May or early-June, then perhaps Class AA Harrisburg in August.

But that's merely an educated guess. Truth be told, Rizzo doesn't know for sure how this is all going to play out. He knows the only one who can determine Harper's progression through the minor leagues is Harper himself. If he dominates, he'll get promoted. If he's merely average or even struggles, he'll stay where he is for a while longer.

In due time, Harper will get his wish and take the field at Nationals Park for the first time. Will he be 18 when it happens? 19? 20? No one knows.

But when that day comes, Harper and the Nationals will be able to look back and know the foundation for a potentially superb career was laid over these last three weeks in Viera.

And that Harper, no matter how he felt the day he arrived in camp, needs to begin that career in Hagerstown, not Washington.

Mark Zuckerman also blogs about the Nationals at natsinsider.com. You can reach him at mzuckerman@comcastsportsnet.com.