The most interesting battle of Nationals spring training in Viera, Fla., might not be waged on the field. It centers around top prospect Bryce Harper, and whether the slugging outfielder with the cannon for an arm will break camp with the Nationals. As soon as manager Davey Johnson and general manager Mike Rizzo settle into their respective homes away from home at Space Coast Stadium, they’ll both be continuing their attempts to convince the other they are right about whether Harper is ready for the majors or whether he needs more minor league seasoning.
Johnson thinks Harper will be ready to contribute as a 19-year-old, and he’s been telling any reporter who would listen since the end of last season that he’s sure there will be a place on the Nationals’ roster for him when the 2012 season dawns at Wrigley Field in Chicago on April 5. Rizzo’s of the mind that a farmhand - even one with Harper’s impressive skills and unlimited potential - should play at all levels of the organization’s minor league system; Harper’s only got 37 games under his belt at Double-A, where he hit .256 before a hamstring injury ended his season prematurely. Rizzo has softened his stance recently, saying last month that he’ll take the best 25 players north out of spring training, but he seems determined to get Harper some Triple-A at-bats before he makes his major league debut.
Both sides have some history on the side of their arguments. As the New York Mets’ manager in 1984, Johnson worked hard to convince then-GM Frank Cashen that a 19-year-old flame-throwing pitcher named Dwight Gooden was good enough to advance from Single-A to the bigs. Johnson won, Gooden dominated and the Mets were World Series champs by 1986. Rizzo’s got a long history as a talent evaluator and scout and knows a thing or two about developing players. While stashing Harper in the minors for at least a month might save the Nationals serious coin by delaying the youngster’s arbitration clock from starting to tick away precious service time, Rizzo insists money won’t be the deciding factor. He prefers to take a conservative approach, seeing a player work his way up the organizational ladder, and points out that the same method has worked pretty well in the case of guys like Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa and Stephen Strasburg.
It won’t exactly be a battle royal, but the subtle comments during meetings in the GM’s suite, manager’s office, on the practice fields or around the batting cage over the next few weeks will be interesting. Each thinks he’s right, both are strong personalities with convincing arguments, and both Johnson and Rizzo believe they are acting with the Nationals’ best interests in mind. Both want to win and both see Harper as a means to that end - only Johnson thinks it should happen sooner than Rizzo probably would prefer.
Will Harper make the club out of spring training? Time will tell. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him playing for the Nationals against the Red Sox in an April 3 exhibition game at Nationals Park just to give the home fans a taste of what’s to come. But if Harper is going to make the 25-man roster, here are five things he’ll have to do:
Dominate offensively during Grapefruit League play: Conventional wisdom says the easiest way for Johnson to get Harper to come north is to have him do so well in spring training that he can’t be kept off the club. That means a dominating offensive performance is in order. Who Harper hits against is as important as his statistics, however. It does Johnson no good if Harper piles up stats late in games against young pitchers targeted for Double-A or veteran arms who are only in opponents’ camps as late-inning spacefillers. Harper has to get opportunities to start games, face major league-caliber starting pitchers and succeed against them. Since Johnson makes out the lineups, he can make that happen. The rest is up to Harper.
Listen and learn: This is Harper’s second big league camp, so he should be familiar with the landscape. One of the most important things for young players is to recognize the pecking order in the clubhouse. While Harper might get a chance to locker between a couple of veterans, he has to understand that he’s still the rookie who’s topped out at Double-A. Major leaguers don’t care what Harper has done in the past or what he might do - they’re interested in the here and now. Harper has to assume the role of sponge and soak up as much as he can from guys like Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth and Adam LaRoche. He has to listen and learn from them on the field - this is particularly true in his dealings with his fellow outfielders like Werth, Rick Ankiel and Mike Cameron. But Harper also has to pay attention to how the veterans conduct themselves - in dealings with fans, media, the front office. If Harper comes off as a hard-working kid who asks for no special treatment, he makes a strong case to Rizzo that he’s ready. Example: Two springs ago, after the first workout on the practice fields adjacent to Space Coast Stadium, Strasburg made the mistake of riding a golf cart back to the clubhouse instead of walking the quarter-mile with his teammates. Veteran reliever Eddie Guardado, in camp as a non-roster invitee, tried to catch up to the golf cart to explain the breach of etiquette to the rookie, yelling, “Hey, rookie! We walk, not ride!” In the clubhouse a short time later, Guardado cornered Strasburg in an animated but quiet one-sided discussion. From there on, Strasburg started hoofing it with everyone else.
Keep a low profile: No way around it, Harper is a personality. The Nationals have tried to keep him under wraps, limiting media access, but the kid has a mind of his own and has some pretty outrageous ideas - like when he told MLB.com last week that he wanted to emulate flamboyant former New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath, he of the brash predictions of success and limitless appetite for nightlife. That’s a surefire way to get a ticket to Triple-A or Double-A. Harper needs to tone down the Twitter rhetoric and make as few waves as possible. It goes without saying that he can’t blow kisses at opposing pitchers or show up umpires who have years under their belts. A little respect goes a long way, but he’s also got to make a concerted effort to be seen and not heard. Last summer, after the Single-A South Atlantic League All-Star Game in Salisbury, Md., Harper bypassed the league-sponsored after-party, where his drinking-age teammates rubbed shoulders with fans. Instead, he sought refuge in a practically empty Applebee’s, enjoying a quiet late-night dinner with his father. Palling around with his teammates is fine, even in a place like Viera that’s devoid of a lot of nighttime temptations. By not creating news off the field, or forcing the front office and PR staffs to spin anything unpleasant, Harper will be making a statement about his maturity.
Handle disappointment like a pro: In a game where you succeed by failing seven times out of 10, every player has to learn to face disappointment. Confronting disappointment isn’t as much of a key as coping with it. Frankly, Harper hasn’t failed a lot in his brief pro career. He’s established a pattern of struggling early and then figuring things out, most times at the expense of the same pitchers who first had the upper hand. Rizzo’s an old-school baseball man, a failed player who found success as an evaluator and player development guru. He knows what it feels like not to succeed, something every major league confronts on a daily basis. Some in the organization are wondering how Harper will handle his first prolonged slump - will he get down on himself, or redouble his efforts to work with coaches and teammates to correct what’s wrong? Despite the high expectations that have accompanied him to Single-A Hagerstown, Double-A Harrisburg and the Arizona Fall League, Harper has to prove he can handle - and overcome - adversity. Spring training is Harper’s next challenge; he could ace it and find himself with the big club, or he could struggle and validate the belief that he’s not yet ready. If Harper is cut, Rizzo will carefully watch his reaction, which may tell him just how much more minor league seasoning the prodigy needs.
Learn to be himself: Harper’s going to be most comfortable with himself and his performance if he’s allowed to be Bryce Harper. Talk to his teammates, minor league managers, the few media types who have talked to him one-on-one, even some opponents - they’ll tell you Harper is an engaging kid who is smart, funny and a good guy. Unfortunately, Harper hasn’t had an opportunity to show that side of himself. His dealings with the media have been tightly controlled, and his handlers bristle when questions not pertaining to that day’s game are lobbed at him. Harper, some say, could one day be the toast of D.C., much like the personable Alex Ovechkin was when the Capitals started winning because he was scoring goals and accessible to those toting notepads, tape recorders, TV cameras and microphones (and Ovechkin did it without a full command of the English language). It won’t happen overnight, and there will be growing pains, but Harper has to learn how to function in the media spotlight. The Nationals made that difficult last season in the minor leagues, but they’ll only be hurting Harper and themselves if they don’t let him begin to escape the cocoon they’ve so carefully constructed around him. Want to let the world know Harper is more than just a baseball player? Let that good teammate with the biting sense of humor come out and play. Don’t construct an impenetrable fortress around him or limit him to canned, vanilla responses. It’s possible for Harper to be genuine without attracting too much attention to himself. Yes, it’s a fine line. But he’ll have to learn to maneuver it sooner rather than later and, as the old saying goes, there’s no time like the present.