Once again, Bryce Harper has charged out of a slow start against players several years older than he is. He's homered four times and driven in 14 runs in his last five games in the Arizona Fall League, and he is tied for fourth in the league with five homers. With a .970 OPS against some of the best prospects in baseball, Harper once again looks more like a seasoned ballplayer than a teenager.
And if he continues that through the end of the fall season and into spring training, it could change the way the Nationals handle him next season. Harper is pushing to make the team on opening day next year, and in manager Davey Johnson, he could have a decision-maker willing to consider it.
Appearing on WJFK-FM yesterday, Johnson said he would consider putting Harper on the Nationals' opening day roster if he is one of the best outfielders on the team at the end of the spring. Harper hit .357 last spring, impressing many of the Nationals' veterans, before the team sent him down to start at Single-A Hagerstown. He knew his chances of making the team at 18 were farfetched, but Harper still wasn't happy about being sent down. It's safe to say he'll have one goal in mind in February, and Johnson won't stand in the way of him achieving it.
"I'm going to go north with the best group of guys I can lay my hands on," he said. "I'm going to keep an open mind. The fact is, I've said that one other time to a general manager, I already said that to (general manager Mike) Rizzo, about a guy named Dwight Gooden. I said, 'Just keep an open mind going into spring.' "
If Harper had a legitimate chance to make the opening day roster, things could get pretty interesting in the Nationals' outfield next year. They already have Michael Morse and Jayson Werth on the corners, and they would like to acquire a leadoff hitter who can also play center field. If Harper was ready to play in the majors, Werth could move to center, though Rizzo has said he would prefer to keep Werth in right field.
Center field still appears to be the best place for the Nationals to put a leadoff hitter, assuming they don't make any changes in their middle infield, and Harper would need a breakout spring to force his way onto the roster early in the year. It's still hard to count on that happening, but a scenario where Harper comes to the majors by summer 2012 isn't hard to imagine at all. By that point, the Nationals will know if Adam LaRoche is healthy, and if he is, they could look at moving him and shifting Morse back to first base.
What's clear, though, is that Harper is aiming to make himself the talk of spring training next year. He's putting himself on that path this fall, and Johnson is excited to see where it goes.
"I know he's going to cap off a great fall league," Johnson said on the radio yesterday, "and I know he's going to come to spring training and he's going to want to show us he's the best outfielder we've got."