Can Bryce Harper silence the critics in 2015? (Heath Bell retires)

VIERA, Fla. - By now, I’m sure you’re aware of the ESPN The Magazine baseball preview, which includes an anonymous poll of major leaguers about a variety of topics. Most notable on the list was the balloting on the game’s most overrated player. For the second consecutive year, Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper won - or maybe lost - in a landslide. Harper received 41 percent of the vote, far ahead of Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig, who finished second with 15 percent.

The same two topped the category before last season, but the margin was much tighter with Harper at 24 percent and Puig at 21 percent. Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez finished third in the poll the last two years as well.

The crazy thing is Harper is on the doorstep of veteran status as he approaches his fourth professional season despite being just 22. I asked Nationals manager Matt Williams if there’s concern that being tagged with this negative designation could potentially affect Harper’s mental approach in an important year.

Bryce-Harper-red-pumped.jpg“That hype’s been there since he was 16 and on the cover of Sports Illustrated,” said Williams. “We don’t let it rent space in our brain. We got better things to do. That’s where we go with it. Bryce is going to play and he’s going to play every day. I think he’s got special talent.”

Harper is arguably the game’s most polarizing player. At one moment, he’s crushing a home run in a critical postseason road game; the next, he’s violently snapping his bat over his knees after a frustrating strikeout. Harper can amaze you with his arm and make you leave the ballpark dumbfounded about a missile-like throw to the plate. Yet just as common is a play from the youngster that’ll make you dump your beer in anger when he simply allows unnecessary runs to score by overthrowing a cutoff man. Sometimes he chooses the spectacular over the fundamental.

Harper announced himself at this year’s spring training with a speech that sounded more like pro wrestling than baseball.

“I’m excited to get going this year and doing the things that I need to do to bring a title back to D.C. and hoist that trophy over the monuments,” he said.

It’s exactly what the game needs, but of course the critics read it as overly flowing with arrogance from the cocky kid who bypassed his senior year of high school for a GED in order to jump more quickly to the pros.

“That’s being in the bubble isn’t it? He understands that, but he’s honest,” said Williams. “He’s honest in his quote that is now famous. He’s just honest. He just tells people, ‘Boy, when we signed Max (Scherzer), this is how I felt.’ There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s not bravado. That’s honesty. Is it motivation for other folks? OK, maybe it is. But Bryce is just being honest. He’s not putting anybody down. He’s just excited to have Max Scherzer on his team. And that’s OK. For me, that’s all right.

“So I think he’s well on his way to where he wants to get to. There are adjustments that need to be made, certainly, as we go, but he’s a dynamic player. He does a lot of things. It gets quiet every once in a while and then you get a play like the other day where it bounces off the wall and he almost throws the guy out at third base. You go, ‘Oh?’ It’s there. As he gets more and more consistent, we’ll see that more and more out of him where he at times will be able to just take over a game and put it on his own shoulders and win that game for you. He’s a pleasure to have on the team and certainly one of our guys that is dynamic and can help us win games.”

Through 357 career games in the majors, Harper is batting .272 with 55 homers and 149 RBIs. The biggest problem through is early career is that injuries have robbed him of 106 games over the past two seasons.

“I want to see from Bryce a lot of consistency,” said Williams. “He shows that. He shows consistency. He’s got the ability to walk. He’s a good on-base guy - traditionally, in his young career, he’s been that. At the same time, I don’t want him to feel pressure to do too much. If he can just be him, then it will be a great year for him. We are working on collectively his pitch recognition at the plate, making sure that we give him all the information we can possibly give him about the opponent. And just let him play. Year four is one thing, but we have to also understand that he’s only 22. He’s still young, very young.”

At some point, if not already, people will stop allowing Harper’s youth to be an excuse. The Nationals need the Harper that bombed three homers and with four RBIs in last year’s National League Division Series. That sort of consistent production in the middle of the lineup will start to change the perception of Harper - and even the Nationals from a pitching-heavy team to an offensive nightmare.

As a hard-nosed veteran of 17 years in the majors, Williams had one final thought on professional baseball players anonymously voting negatively on their peers.

“Well, it’s an interesting concept,” Williams said, clearly annoyed by the idea. “Let me say that. It’s interesting. What Bryce can do is be Bryce and play. That moniker may go away if he does what he can do. I’ll leave it at that.”

Update: Veteran reliever Heath Bell has chosen to retire after being released by the Nats on Monday, according to MLB.com. The 37-year-old allowed four earned runs on seven hits and five walks while fanning seven in 6 1/3 innings this spring.

Bell was a three-time All-Star closer with the Padres, putting together a remarkable three-year run where he recorded 132 saves from 2009-11. Over the last three years, however, he racked up just 34 saves with a 4.91 ERA in 155 relief appearances.

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