Despite impressive spring, Bryce Harper can’t escape the minors

VIERA, Fla. - There was never any question that Bryce Harper, no matter how much he did to remind people he wasn’t 18 years old, was going to face this day. He was going to make that walk down to manager Jim Riggleman’s office and hear the same words every player who makes that walk this time of year hears: That he was going to the minors.

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In the last few days, as he saw teammates with less illustrious backgrounds pack their things up and head to the Nationals’ minor league camp, even Harper seemed to know he couldn’t delay that phase of his professional career much longer.

“You’ve always got that in the back of your head - ‘Is it my day to go? Is it my time?’ ” Harper said. “Today was my time.”

The 18-year-old was optioned to Single-A Hagerstown after the Nationals’ win over the Yankees on Saturday, ending his time in major league camp after an impressive tour of the Grapefruit League. Harper played in 13 games for the Nationals, hitting .389/.450/.556 and driving in five runs. The closest he came to hitting a home run was a ball that was caught at the warning track on March 2 against the Marlins, but by the end of his time in big league camp, last year’s No. 1 overall pick looked like he was making some progress in hitting left-handed pitchers and figuring out off-speed stuff.

And yet, he’ll go to the minors because that’s what baseball players, even phenoms, do. This is a game steeped in failure, and it’s brought low even the brightest talents. The rites of the game are 12-hour bus rides, 3-for-22 slumps and rickety hotel beds in places like Rome, Ga., and Kinston, N.C. Harper hasn’t gone through these things yet, and even if they’re not entirely sure he’d fail without them, the Nationals aren’t going to bring him to the majors without exposing him to them.

They exposed him to the first one on Saturday, telling him he wasn’t going to play for them on opening day. As he packed up his things, Harper said, matter-of-factly, “I’ve never not made a team.”

Could he have made this one? Harper showed plenty of evidence his talent is legit, even if much of that evidence came against fringe major leaguers. Off the field, he impressed teammates with how he blended into a big league clubhouse, exhibiting none of the arrogance he’d been rumored to have. And on the field...well, that mostly spoke for itself.

“Obviously, the skills are there,” said outfielder Rick Ankiel, himself a former phenom who Harper credited as a mentor this spring. “He looks fine. He looks good in everything he does.”

But there were still some ragged edges in his game, which the Nationals intend to have polished by the minor league development process. Harper overthrew cutoff men on occasion, making a throwing error that led to the winning run for the Astros on Thursday and getting thrown out when he tried to take third base on an infield single yesterday. His mistakes were mostly mistakes of aggression, but the Nationals want him to learn how to apply his tough-as-nails approach to the game and put in some defensive work.

“He’s certainly going to take the lessons he learned here and improve on them,” general manager Mike Rizzo said. “He’s going to work on his base running, his outfield play, hitting the cutoffs, his throwing accuracy, and just getting at-bat after at-bat after at-bat and get himself to take the plan here he had with that and take it to the minor leagues and get after it.”

Short of being a five-year major leaguer, though, there’s little else Harper could have done to make a better impression on the Nationals this spring. They thought they were getting a player as tenacious as any to enter the game in years, and Harper didn’t let them down. After gushing about the Yankees in his introductory press conference, he wouldn’t fraternize with them on the field last Saturday because they were the opposition that day - “On the field, I want to kick the crap out of you,” he said. He went hard into bases, ran out pop flies that weren’t going to be hits and jumped up to get loose in innings where he was scheduled to bat fifth.

“He’s a terrific young man, and he has a terrific baseball acumen and he’s as hard a player as I’ve seen in a long time,” Rizzo said.

The process, though, is bigger than Harper. And on Saturday, as he said his goodbyes, he seemed to know that his only misstep this spring was being 18.

That’s a temporary problem.

“It’s the game. That’s what I have to do,” Harper said. “I’ve got to go down there and get a couple more at-bats a day. That will be good for me, getting four or five at-bats a day, that’ll be great. It was a great, great experience up here and I couldn’t ask for nothing better. I loved every minute of it and hopefully I’ll be back soon.”