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With Nationals rookie Bryce Harper, timing is everything

By Thomas Boswell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 23, 2011; 12:13 AM

VIERA, FLA.

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."

In analyzing Harper, that's the rub, for sure.

If you study record books, there seems to be a clear answer to the Harper conundrum. Even players destined to hit more than 500 home runs don't show much of that power at ages 19, 20 and 21.

At those ages, Mantle, Griffey and A-Rod got plenty of playing time. Mantle averaged 450 at-bats a season, but just 19 homers and 81 RBI - nice, but not yet The Mick.

Griffey, at those ages, averaged 533 at-bats with 20 homers and 80 RBI. And A-Rod, who may end up the career home run leader, averaged 443 at-bats with 21 homers and 75 RBI. At 19, Al Kaline had four homers in 504 at-bats. Even Mel Ott, the slugging teen, had just 18 homers and 77 RBI at 19. (He hit .322.)

For early bloomers, 20 is the age for breakout seasons - but not sooner.

Of all the players who have hit 300 or more homers, only three ever reached double figures in homers as a teenager, and all did it at 19: Ott (18), Griffey (16) and Mantle (13). So, anyone who expects to see much in the way of fireworks from Harper before '13 has no sense of history or thinks he's better at a younger age than any player who ever lived.

Precedent says, by holding a phenom back for extra seasoning, you lose relatively little power production while reducing the risk of "rushing and ruining" a possible star. Also, these days, by calling up a player in June, rather than April, you can usually delay the start of his "free agent clock" by a full season. In essence, you sacrifice a couple of months early in his career in exchange for controlling him an extra season when he is in his prime.

One problem for the Nats is that fame for the unproven seems to rise exponentially with the multiplication of new media platforms. On the first full day of spring training, Harper was so scrutinized that the Nats went all black ops, whisking him away in a golf cart to a white paneled van to be driven back to the Nats' clubhouse; thus, he avoided the crush of fans who had cornered him by a fence Tuesday until security extricated him.

What's on tap for Thursday, a secret tunnel under the mound on Field 4?

"I've got hauled away in a golf cart before. In the Arizona Fall League, it got really bad," Harper said. "But I'd rather have people want my autograph than not want it."

Whenever Harper arrives, he's probably going to be an extroverted pleasure. Some sound bytes that seem outrageous or brash may bite him. However, taken in context, he is both extremely confident and determined to respect the game.

Harper was quick to tease himself, pointing out that veterans needled him with "Don't wear the eye black." No problem, guys, done deal.

"I probably don't get as star-struck as most guys would, but it was really something to be talking to Pudge Rodriguez, a [future] Hall of Famer," Harper said. "I go, 'I met you, so I'm done. I can go home now.' "

Harper was told that Rodriguez's career had started before he was born. In one of the most quick-witted quips I can remember, certainly from an 18-year-old, Harper said instantly, "Hopefully, it ends before I leave." As Nuke LaLoosh would say, "Think about it."

His $9.9 million contract practically forces Harper to talk bravely about "making the team." But he seems sincere when he talks about how much he has to learn from "guys who have been at it a long time. . . . I want to get there. It'll take a while. . . . Chris Marrero hits the cover off the ball."

That'd be Chris Marrero of the AA Harrisburg Senators.

We better get our brief Harper fix now, both the clouts and the quips. His day is coming, maybe thousands of them.

But they probably won't arrive as soon as he, or most Nats fans, would passionately prefer.

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