Bryce Harper talks leadership and his status with the Nats

VIERA, Fla. - When he sat in the first base dugout at Space Coast Stadium one year ago for a 12-minute, first-day-of-spring session with reporters, Bryce Harper was a whirlwind of emotion, confidence and quips that was defined by a line that haunted him for months: "Where's my ring?"

When he sat in the same dugout Monday morning for a 17-minute, first-day-of-spring session with reporters, Harper offered no such headline for the masses. Slowly but surely, he's learning how to avoid the kind of eye-opening quotes that go viral and cause headaches for him and the Nationals.

Which doesn't mean Harper can't still offer insight into his mind and how he sees his place among his teammates and the sport in general.

Now 23 with four big league seasons on his resume and the National League Most Valuable Player award on his mantel back home in Las Vegas, Harper's status as one of baseball's best players and one of its biggest stars is unquestioned. It's only natural to question if that means it's time for him to assume a leadership position within the Nats clubhouse.

Harper's answer to that question Monday morning, though, was surprisingly emphatic.

Harper-Red-HR-Swing-Sidebar.jpg"I don't think I'm a leader," he said. "I think I'm more just a guy playing the game. I think (Jayson Werth) and (Ryan Zimmerman) and all those guys are the leaders, those guys that are going to go about it every single day and do the things that they think are right for this team."

Baseball clubhouses can be funny places. Service time almost always trumps actual accomplishments. Younger players always defer to older players.

Harper had a firm grasp on that dynamic the moment he reached the majors in 2012. And though he has been around long enough now - and certainly has performed well enough - to merit a higher standing among his teammates, he doesn't appear to seek it yet.

"I'm not a very vocal guy," he insisted. "I really go out there and just play the game I can, not take a guy to the side or in front of a camera and be like, 'Oh, hey, you got to do this.' More of being inside the clubhouse and do everything I can to help guys out if they need it. I'm still at that stage of where I'm still looking at J-Dub, I'm still looking at Zim, to do everything they can to make the best for this team. Play as hard as I can out there and lead by example, that's the best thing I can do."

Told later what Harper said, new Nationals manager Dusty Baker concurred with his young superstar's line of thinking.

"I think he's right," Baker said. "He has leadership potential, but he's not a leader yet. How many people are going to follow the youngest kid in the room? Just because you're the most talented doesn't mean that you're the leader. I don't think it's really fair to put that even on him."

Ready for a leadership role or not, Harper unquestionably is the best player on the Nationals roster and on the short list for best player in the game right now. His MVP performance in 2015, when he became only the ninth player in history to hit .330 with 42 homers and a .460 on-base percentage, confirmed that.

Harper arrived in Viera over the weekend determined not to dwell on that, though. Much as he enjoyed and was humbled by all the attention he received upon winning his first MVP award, he quickly turned the page toward 2016, with a more-important goal on his mind.

"I just want to win," he said. "I don't care about accolades or numbers or anything like that. I just want to win ballgames and do everything we can to get to the next level. I know if I can stay healthy and do everything I can to help this team win, we'll be fine."

Try as he might to shift attention away from himself and toward a Nationals club trying to bounce back from a disappointing 83-win season, Harper knows his personal accomplishments are going to remain on everyone's minds.

As will his contract status. Though he remains under team control for three more seasons, Harper already is hearing more and more speculation about free agency. Will he get a $400 million contract? $500 million? Is it inevitable he winds up a Yankee?

Don't expect Harper to give any firm answers on those subjects just yet. And don't expect him to accept anybody's premise of his actual worth.

"I mean, I've got three years to play," he said. "I've got three years to do everything I can to play this game. The $400 (million) or whatever everybody was talking about, money, you can't put a limit on players. You can't put a limit on what they do. If that's on the field, off the field, everything they do. Everybody says the sky's the limit. But we've been on the moon. So you can't really say that. ...

"I'm a National. That's what I want to be right now. I've got the W on my chest for the next three years. I'm very humble to put the W on my chest every single day. I love being in the nation's capital. I love D.C. I get chills thinking about it right now. It's such a monumental town. And I look forward to playing there every single day for three years. That's what's on my mind right now."

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