Nationals No. 1 prospect Bryce Harper is preparing for his second season of professional baseball after a successful debut. Harper was able to play well at three levels in 2011: low Single-A, Double-A and the Arizona Fall League. Many believe he is ready now and could survive from day one this season with the Nationals.
But Harper is only 19. Should he spend another season in the minors to hone his skills? Physically, he is ready, but how important is the mental part of the game to long-term success, in a game where you fail seven or eight times out of every 10 attempts?
New Triple-A Syracuse manager Tony Beasley believes Harper could use some more seasoning but has also demonstrated hints of the complete package
"I would hate to see him come all the way through the system quickly, skip levels and then get the major league level and really skid," Beasley said. "The thing he has that is special, and I have talked to him about it, is his mindset - the way he believes and the level of confidence he has and his ability to play the game of baseball. I don't think you want to shake that, especially at this age. I don't think you want to take the chance of shaking that."
Beasley said Harper was tested last season when things did not go well at the plate and he worked it out.
"I was happy (how he handled each game early on) when he wasn't hitting .320 and he was around the low .200s," Beasley remembered. "I was most impressed probably by that (more) than anything else he did because the other stuff, I know that that was in there. But (It helped to know) how someone is going to deal with falling down a little bit and not being what you were hyped up to be for a couple of days or so. The fans can be tough on you. How are you going to handle it? I thought he handled it really, really well."
So it seems to be a logical consensus that even with such great promise, seasoning at the minor league level is still a very good thing for Harper as he completes his baseball undergraduate work.
Fast forward through 2012. What if Harper continues this tear? What if he hits .300, smacks home runs, steals bases, nails runners from the outfield wall to home plate and does not get the call up to the Nationals? How will that affect Harper's psyche?
Beasley said this scenario is nothing new. It happens to a vast majority of major league-ready prospects, whether your name is Bryce Harper, Justin Upton, Jason Heyward or many others. The key is to not worry about when, but to concentrate on the work now.
"No matter who you are in the game of baseball, there is always a part of the game that you can improve upon," Beasley said. "You control the things that you can control in baseball and you do take one day at a time. No matter if you hit .330, there is still something in your game that you (can improve). There is no perfect player in baseball. There is no perfect guy. There is always something you can improve upon.
"I think at his age, he should not worry so much about where (he) is going and how fast he is trying to get there. Just try do what you are supposed to do and learn what it takes to be a professional. It is not all about the numbers. It is about dealing with the pressures of being at the major league level after the game, as well."
And not every issue involves being able to hit a curve or tracking a fly ball.
"It is real risky at the major league level because there is a lot thrown at you, there is a lot of temptation, there is a lot of opportunity to do what you shouldn't be doing," Beasley said. "I am not talking about when you are at the ballpark. I am talking about when you are away from the ballpark.
"Are you the kind of player who reads the paper all the time? Do you watch 'SportsCenter?' How do these things affect you because they really magnify at the major league level. His play was magnified even at Hagerstown. With the Suns, he was on 'SportsCenter.' When he got thrown out of a game in Harrisburg it was on 'SportsCenter.' So imagine at the major league level it is going to be even more. That is something that is not going to go away. You just learn how to deal with it because you are Bryce Harper."
But all you can go on is what you have seen and Beasley believes in what Harper has produced in one season. He believes it is a very positive sign for what lies ahead for the Nationals and their top prospect.
"I think so far he has done outstanding. That is the tough call for general manager Mike Rizzo and manager Davey Johnson (to make). All we can do as a minor league field staff is to prepare him as best we can for on and off field situations. I think so far he is way, way ahead of his years and he gets it. I think (Harper) really understands it," Beasley said.
So, is Harper ready?
"If he gets the call out of spring training this year," Beasley said, "I have a feeling that he can handle it."