DALLAS - Like general manager Mike Rizzo, Nationals skipper Davey Johnson wants to give Bryce Harper a chance to compete for a spot on the team's 25-man roster out of spring training. But there are obstacles stacked against the organization's future centerpiece, not the least of which are the facts that he's only 19 and has never played above Double-A.
So in speaking to reporters at the Winter Meetings on Monday afternoon, Johnson had this message for his GM: Please keep an open mind.
"You guys asked me, 'When do you think Harper's going to get there,' and I said I think he's going to have some quality at-bats in the big leagues when he's 19," Johnson said with a smile. "So he's 19."
When the subject of rushing promising talent to the major leagues comes up, Johnson speaks with knowledge few managers possess. Back in 1984, when he was in his first season at the helm of the New York Mets, Johnson lobbied Mets GM Frank Cashen to take a raw 19-year-old kid back from spring training. The pitcher in question was Dwight Gooden, who had gone 19-4 with a 2.50 ERA in 27 starts at Single-A Lynchburg and held his own when called on to pitch for the Mets' Triple-A affiliate in the Triple-A World Series.
"I told Rizz, I had to fight for a young pitcher who was 19 years old in New York," Johnson recalled. "I said to Frank Cashen, 'You keep an open mind, just keep an open mind. See what he does in the spring and evaluate whether he makes the club or not.' After many conversations, I finally got (Cashen) to agree to that and the rest is history. I think (Harper is) pretty mature. I don't look at him age-wise like you probably should. I think he's definitely going to make this spring very interesting."
So does Rizzo, but he's stopped short of saying Harper, the top overall pick in the 2010 draft, will get a chance to crack the roster out of spring camp in Viera, Fla. Rizzo's stated preference is for young players to get a chance to perform - and succeed - at every level of the minor leagues and Harper has only reached Double-A, where a hamstring injury cut short his 2011 campaign.
Harper hit .318 with 17 homers and 58 RBIs for Single-A Hagerstown, earning acclaim as a South Atlantic League All-Star in his first pro season. When he was bumped up a notch to Double-A Hagerstown, bypassing the Advanced Single-A Carolina League where the Potomac Nationals play, Harper hit .256 with three homers and 12 RBIs in 37 games before the hamstring injury.
Not that statistics really matter to a guy who, before his 20th birthday, has made a habit out of making people rethink their opinions of him. And since Harper will be in his second camp, Johnson figures, he'll have more of a comfort zone established.
"I think it'll be pretty obvious in the spring," Johnson said. "He had a really good spring last year; I think he hit about .390 in the spring. But I think the main thing is, do I think he could handle it mentally? I think in his mind he's already figuring to be starting on the club. That's him. I haven't talked to him, but I know that he's done everything in his whole life to succeed at a higher level and compete with the best. I think he's the kind of individual that, even last year in Double-A, puts more pressure on himself trying to perform and expedite the trip to the big leagues. So I think he'll be much more relaxed if he's there and competing."
Ultimately, Johnson said, Harper will make the decision for the Nats, no matter what the organizational brass seems to think. If he shows he can hit major league pitching, if he doesn't wilt under the weighty expectations placed upon him, Harper may force Washington's hand.
"Is he the best candidate out there? Is he going to make our club stronger? I'd like another left-handed bat in the lineup. ... I'm open to him competing for a spot," Johnson said.