Page 2 of 2   <      

Nationals are more furious about loss than excited about future

The Washington Post's Dave Sheinin and Tom Boswell preview the Nationals likely No. 1 draft selection, Bryce Harper. At 16 years old, Harper hit the longest home run in the history of Tropicana Field (502 feet).

"Our fans give us a long leash," said Manager Jim Riggleman. "Internally, we're saying the heck with that. Lets get over the hump."

Short-term, Strasburg should help. Longer-term, Harper might be huge. In the 17-year-old from Las Vegas, the Nats get a player scouts think could be the starting catcher or right fielder in 2013 or '14 at the latest.

After facing junior college pitching this season using a wooden bat, Harper may be an even higher probability to succeed than some other No. 1-overall picks of the last generation who came out of high school. On that list: Darryl Strawberry, Chipper Jones, Griffey Jr., Adrian Gonzalez, Alex Rodriguez and Mauer.

"The safest draft is a high school hitter. That's been the most successful strategy," Riggleman said.

Pitchers break. Hitters heal. So any hurler, even Strasburg, is always a risk. But a Harper, once he proves his talent translates to the high minors, is almost a long-term lock.

"Draft time is exciting. When you get a really good hitter, you can't hold 'em back," said Riggleman. "If Harper is like Jason Heyward [the slugging 20-year-old Atlanta rookie right fielder] and Strasburg is like Tim Lincecum or (11-1) Ubaldo Jiménez, then you can dream on it. Will they be that good?

"If it does turn out that way, well, then we got both of 'em on the same team. And they'll be here while Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond, Jordan Zimmermann, and Drew Storen are all still young. You'd have a large core of really special young athletes. It's got a chance to be an exciting next few years around here."

Perhaps the only significant doubt about Harper is his makeup. Not his intensity, but perhaps too much ego and self-aggrandizing flash, like the big black grease splotches on his cheeks that serve no purpose but to identify him as Bryce Harper. The Braveheart Does Baseball face paint, the showboating antics when he gets in the batter's box, that will disappear quickly or he'll pay a price in hostility that no sensible young pro would invite.

Harper may be less of a risk because nobody in General Manager Mike Rizzo's operation is likely to keep a big head for long. That supposed super-talent Lastings Milledge (still homerless this year in Pittsburgh) lasted only weeks after Rizzo took charge.

"[Minor league field instructor] Bobby Henley is the ultimate no-nonsense professional, as good a man as you'll get," Riggleman said. "When we put a player in his hands, he will be instructed in everything -- in how you need to react to every situations, or associate with your teammates or make comments. It's like baseball undergraduate school."

From all accounts, Harper is a baseball dirt dog who loves to be taught. So, the match with the Nats may actually be a fit.

On a child's birthday, you never say, "Don't expect too much. That way you won't risk being disappointed." Instead, you put on a big silly grin and enjoy opening the presents right along with them.

So, temporarily, ignore what has happened to the Nationals recently, especially this past week. For the Nats, the next two days will be a chance to celebrate the unveiling of two enormous gifts. However, an equally good piece of news is the radically changed atmosphere into which those young players will be moving.

"The majors aren't like people told me they'd be. They talk about how pros play for themselves," said Storen, a rookie from Stanford who owns a 1.93 ERA. "It's just 180 degrees opposite. We care when we lose. Days like this hurt. You come in here and you can tell it's about the name on the front of the jersey -- 'Nationals' -- not the name on the back of the jersey."

But the identities on the back of the jerseys matter, too. Soon, for "Strasburg," and before very long for "Harper," those names will be written large in Washington and probably for many years.

<       2

© 2010 The Washington Post Company