Marty Niland: For Harper, here's hoping best is yet to come

Of all the red-letter days in Washington's baseball history, Nationals fans may well look back on April 28, 2012 as the most important date of all.

It was on that date that a 19-year-old rookie named Bryce Aron Max Harper made his major league debut, amid the media spotlight of Los Angeles. He singled and drove in a run for a Nats team that was struggling offensively, and while Washington would fall to the Dodgers, both Harper and the Nats would soon heat up and not look back.

Harper provided a spark that eventually carried over to the rest of the lineup and, along with a combination of career seasons from several other players, propelled the Nats to the best record in baseball and a postseason appearance against St. Louis. He finished with 22 homers and 59 RBIs with a .270 average, .340 OBP and .477 slugging percentage, one of the finest seasons a 19-year-old ever had, to easily win the National League Rookie of the Year award.

And now, following the first anniversary of his call-up, the numbers for his first 162 games are even more exciting: 31 homers, 77 RBIs, 19 stolen bases and a .284/.356/.518 slash line.

This year, Harper is off to one of the hottest starts in baseball, hitting .373/.453/.783 with nine home runs and 18 RBIs in 23 games through Saturday. If that trajectory holds up, we're talking about a player with Triple Crown potential, words that have never been uttered seriously by baseball fans in this city.

If Harper can keep up this pace at 20, he will put himself in the company of Mickey Mantle (.311/.394/.530 with 23 homers at 20), Jimmie Foxx (.328/.416/.548 with 13 homers at 20) and Ken Griffey Jr. (.300/.366/.481 with 22 homers at 20). His pace is hotter than that of Mel Ott, who hit .328/.449/.635 with 42 homers at 20. Each of those players is a member of the Hall of Fame - or, in Griffey's case, headed to Cooperstown. Those are comparisons that have not been seriously made in this city in generations.

The best news of all for Washington fans is that Harper will be in a Nationals uniform until he is at least 26. His current contract runs through 2015, meaning he will not be eligible for salary arbitration until 2016 at the earliest. The soonest he can become a free agent is the 2019 season, and the Nats will have every opportunity to give him a long-term extension that would keep him in Washington even longer.

For a team that still sees itself as up and coming, it's comforting to know that a player with true superstar potential will be around at least long enough for it to become a group of proven veterans. So happy anniversary, Bryce. It's been a great ride so far, with many more years to come.

Marty Niland blogs about the Nationals for D.C. Baseball History. His thoughts on the Nationals will appear here as part of MASNsports.com's season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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