With Nationals rookie Bryce Harper, timing is everything
Wednesday, February 23, 2011; 12:13 AM
It took only one day for the Bryce Harper Countdown to start. How long before he plays at Nats Park? How long before he's in the lineup to stay? Get your arguments warmed up. The drumbeat will be constant until he arrives.
My view is, even in a best-case scenario, the Washington Nationals are probably nuts if they even think about making him a regular before June 2012, when he'll be just 19. I'll explain the reasoning later. But there's going to be a world of pressure, coming from every direction, including Harper himself, to move far faster.
"Are you going to make this team or what?" several Nats asked the 18-year-old rookie on his first full day of spring training. His answer, he said, was "Yes, I'm going to try to make the team."
Later, when asked if this was a realistic goal or just a pep talk he had given himself, Harper said: "Why can't it be realistic? Why can't I come in here and think that I can make this team? I've exceeded expectations my whole life. . . . I'm going to try to make it hard" for them to send him down to the minor leagues.
Manager Jim Riggleman, after the usual provisos about rookies starting in the minors, said, "Never say never." That's the right answer for any manager. Don't antagonize a player if you can avoid it. That's the GM's job, and Mike Rizzo is up to it.
"Bryce will start in the minors," Rizzo said Tuesday. "We're not that stupid."
Nonetheless, the clamor for Harper to show up on South Capitol Street will probably start as soon as he hits a spring training home run or lights up the A-ball pitchers in Hagerstown in April.
So when do serious baseball people think Harper should be brought up, assuming he batters the bushes the way he did the Arizona Fall League (.343), where many of the players (58 percent, according to Rizzo) get to the majors the next season?
Former Nats manager Frank Robinson, whose 38 homers as a 20-year-old for the 1956 Reds was the rookie record for decades, happened to be at Space Coast Stadium on Tuesday. If he hadn't had a serious injury to his throwing shoulder in '55, Robinson thinks the Reds would have put him in the lineup at age 19, and he assumes he would have flourished.
"You have to look at each individual and what he can do," Robinson said. "You can't throw a blanket over people."
Said Nats consultant Davey Johnson: "How can you really compare Harper to previous teenage players? The methods for teaching are far more advanced now - everything from conditioning to film study to instruction in techniques. Everybody mentions Mickey Mantle or Ken Griffey Jr. or Alex Rodriguez when they were 18 or 19. That's long ago. Griffey broke in over 20 years ago, and even A-Rod was more than 15 years ago."