Philadelphia, PA – One of the more intriguing stories in spring training is taking place down in Viera, Fla., where phenom Bryce Harper is making his case to be one of the Washington Nationals' starting outfielders.
Harper's story has been well documented. After donning the cover of Sports Illustrated as a 16-year-old, Harper skipped his final two years of high school, received his GED and enrolled in a wood-bat junior college league to get him in the draft a year early.
Washington made him the No. 1 overall pick in 2010 with the hope that one day he and flame-thrower Stephen Strasburg would be the cornerstones of a winning franchise that has floundered for what seems like forever.
In his first taste of professional baseball last season, Harper split time between Single-A Hagerstown and Double-A Harrisburg, hitting a combined .297. However, in 37 games with Harrisburg, his production really tailed off, as he batted just .256 to go along with three home runs and 12 RBIs.
Some said he was bored at the minor league level. Others said he was overmatched, a notion quickly dismissed by anyone who saw him play in person. It could have been a mixture of both, as from all accounts the young prodigy still had a lot of growing up to do.
But from the end of last season to now, there is a noticeable difference in the kid. His attitude has changed, his maturity level seems to have risen and it's no longer a question of if Harper will become a star, it is when.
"If I can come out here, work in the outfield, work hard (on my) hitting, I'm going to try and make their decision hard," Harper said. "That's the most I can do. ... I want to be up here, I want to play, and I want to play in D.C."
Manager Davey Johnson also hasn't hidden his desire to bring the slugger north with the team. Johnson has gone out of his way to mention to anyone who will listen that he would love to have Harper in right field on Opening Day.
"He is in a real good hitting position throughout his swing," Johnson said about Harper. "A couple of his teammates who haven't seen him -- one of them Jason Michaels -- said something like, 'This Harper is pretty good.' I voiced that to some of the staff."
Does Johnson mean it, or is he just trying to relieve some of the pressure that baseball's "next big thing" undoubtedly feels?
"It's great having him on my side, keeping an open mind and telling everyone to keep an open mind," Harper said. "That is really helping me. It takes a lot of pressure off of me. He just lets me go out there and just play my game, have fun like I do. Hopefully, I can show him a little bit, just keep going every single day, getting better every day and work hard."
Why the rush, though? Harper is only 19 and has just over 450 professional at- bats to his credit. If he comes north, the Nats better be right because there's no need to sacrifice a full season of him at 25 for a month of him at 19.
A lot of things would probably have to break their way, but with the addition of another wild card it's not exactly crazy to think the Nats could contend for a postseason spot.
Maybe the Philadelphia Phillies struggle to find offense, perhaps Strasburg is all that he is supposed to be and that pitching staff is as good as some think it can be. Who's to say Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth can't be that one-two punch general manager Mike Rizzo envisioned last winter? Or that Mike Morse really is more than a one-year wonder?
Maybe Harper can be the missing piece that puts the Nats over the top in the second half. Contending teams are going to have a harder time of it adding pieces at the trade deadline with the new postseason format, as more clubs will feel as if they are still in it, especially on July 31.
And certainly no team is going to add the caliber of bat as a Harper.
Whether he's lights out this spring or not, it absolutely makes more sense to start him in the minors. From a baseball standpoint there is no hurry and, more importantly, from a financial standpoint it would guarantee another full year or his service before he becomes eligible for free agency.
Either way, Harper has the goods and his time is coming. It should come a little later, though.