Nationals spring stories to watch: The Strasburg/Harper debuts

The Nationals’ future with Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper is not here yet. Really, it’s not even close to being here. Harper has to scale four levels of minor league baseball before he’ll reach the majors, and to get back there after Tommy John surgery, Strasburg has to build from playing soft toss (which he did for the first time yesterday) to unleashing the triple-digit fastball that took the game captive last summer.

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It’s a virtual lock neither player will be in the majors before September, and it seems almost certain they won’t share a big league clubhouse until 2012 at the earliest. But this spring, at least for a little while, their twin hype circuses will run together; Strasburg will be rehabbing this spring, and Harper will see time in major league camp before the Nationals send him out, probably sometime in mid-March.

Here’s a quick look at the spring for the Nationals’ two phenoms:

What’s changed: At this time last year, the Nationals figured they’d have Strasburg in their rotation by mid-season and never look back. They also knew they’d have the first pick in the draft, and Harper was likely to be their guy. Now, though, they could be looking at a season with neither of those players in the majors; Strasburg would be ready for a few starts in September if his Tommy John rehab goes well, but the odds of the 18-year-old Harper reaching the majors this year are next to nil.

What to watch: Strasburg’s Tommy John rehab will take full flight this spring, when he begins his throwing program upon arriving in Viera. It’ll be a slow start at first, and Strasburg will stay in Viera well past Opening Day, but the team hopes to have him out on a minor league rehab assignment by this summer - at which point he could end up sharing a minor league clubhouse with Harper. Sales executives at Hagerstown and Potomac have to be salivating over that possibility. As for Harper, he’ll get a look in big league camp, probably playing center field as well as right field as the Nationals begin his education in the majors. Expect some moments of brilliance from Harper - and put the thought of him making the team out of your head right now. It’s not happening.

Who’s on the hot seat: This could be the last spring in which neither player is expected to contribute to the major league club, but that doesn’t mean there’s not some pressure. The Nationals are cautiously optimistic about Strasburg’s recovery, and all signs to this point have indicated he’s coming along nicely. Coming back from Tommy John surgery is a tedious process, though, and with Strasburg having had surgery last September, any setbacks could take out the possibility of him making a big league start this year. And it will be interesting to see how Harper fits in alongside major leaguers; Strasburg aced that test last year by deflecting attention away from himself, deferring to his veteran teammates and listening more than he spoke. But Harper is 18, with a natural confidence that can come off as brash at times. It’s not very often you see a teenager in a big league clubhouse, and there will likely be an initiation process of sorts for Harper this year.

What will happen: If you’d like to see Harper in spring training, I’d recommend getting to Space Coast Stadium before March 15 or so. The Nationals have back-to-back televised games on MASN March 11 and 12, playing host to the Yankees in the second of those two. They’ll likely get Harper some games in the majors, let him get his feet wet, show him off for the fans and send him out. Strasburg was optioned to Double-A Harrisburg on March 20 last year, but the season didn’t start until April 5. As for last year’s phenom, most of his action will be confined to back fields in the Nationals’ complex. You’ll be able to see him throwing if you venture back there, but don’t expect to see anything spectacular. What Strasburg does during spring training will be fairly simple, with the bulk of his rehab coming after the crowds have left.

Let me know what you think of the Strasburg/Harper confluence this spring - are you excited to have them both together, or is it not a big event yet because neither of them is likely to be in the majors? Post your thoughts below.