There are plenty of reasons why Bryce Harper should not begin the 2012 season in the major leagues. He is 19 years old. He has taken less than 600 at-bats as a professional. He has never faced pitching above Class AA.
But then there is also the mortar-fire crash of the ball connecting with his bat, and the uncommon maturity he gained playing against older competition all of his life. There is the immense talent that, when you scrub away his youth and relative inexperience, screams he can compete, right now, at any level.
When Davey Johnson weighs those factors, he comes to a conclusion that could help shape the Nationals offseason and will dominate their spring. He believes Harper deserves the opportunity to arrive in Viera, Fla., and compete to make the Nationals on opening day.
“I think it will be pretty obvious in the spring,” Johnson said. “I think the main thing is, could he handle it mentally? I think, in his mind, he’s already figuring he’ll be starting on the club. He’s done everything in his whole life to compete at a higher level and compete with the best. He’s the kind of individual that probably puts more pressure on himself to perform and expedite the trip to the big leagues. I think he’ll be much more relaxed if he’s there and competing.”
In 1984, when Johnson managed the New York Mets, he worked to convince his general manager, Frank Cashen, that the Mets should promote 19-year-old Dwight Gooden even though he had never pitched above Class A. “Let’s just keep an open mind and see what he does,” Johnson repeated to Cashen.
Johnson got his wish. Gooden made the team, then went 17-9 with a 2.60 ERA in his rookie season, finishing second in the Cy Young vote. The experience – a prodigious, rare talent succeeding despite youth – informs Johnson’s thinking with Harper, who bolstered his case with a dazzling performance in the Arizona Fall League.
“I think this guy’s pretty mature,” Johnson said. “I don’t look at him age-wise like I probably should. But I think he’s going to make this spring very interesting.”
Johnson wants to give Harper a chance to make the team, in part, because his left-handed bat would fit well into the Nationals’ lineup. Johnson would prefer adding another lefty into a lineup to make three along with first baseman Adam LaRoche and switch-hitting second baseman Danny Espinosa.
“Is he the best candidate out there?” Johnson said. “Is he going to make our club stronger? I’m open to him competing for a spot, whether he can handle it, or whether he makes it until June or July.
“I think you guys asked me last spring, when do you think Harper is going to get there? I said he’s going to have some quality at-bats in the big leagues when he’s 19. He’s 19, isn’t he?”