By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 13, 2011; 3:19 PM
VIERA, FLA. - The Washington Nationals optioned first overall pick Bryce Harper to low-Class A Hagerstown, an inevitable development that continued the process of Harper reaching the major leagues - which General Manager Mike Rizzo did not rule out happening by the end of the 2011 season.
"I couldn't have asked for nothing better," Harper said. "I loved every minute of it, and hopefully, I'll be back soon."
From the day he arrived, Harper realized his first major league spring training would not end with him earning a spot on the team. But Saturday's news stung, anyway. After he packed two duffel bags with his equipment, he was asked about the last time he had been cut from a team. Harper puffed his cheeks and slowly blew out the air. "I've never not made a team," he said.
Harper, at 18, was the youngest player this year in any major league camp, which made it reasonable to wonder, even considering his unparalleled ascension and prodigious talents, if he would fall on his face. "Shoot," Nationals outfielder Rick Ankiel said, "he should still be in high school." Harper dashed any questions about whether he belonged. He played in 13 of the Nationals' 14 games, going 7 for 18 (.389) with three doubles, two walks, a .556 slugging percentage and a .450 on-base percentage.
"He played great," Rizzo said. "He did not look overmatched, either at the plate or on the field."
The Nationals felt Harper could handle playing against major league spring training teams, but his development would have been hurt by coming off the bench and getting one or two at-bats per game. In minor league camp, Harper will take four or five at-bats daily.
"He needs to experience the everyday-ness of the professional game," Rizzo said. "He's certainly going to take the lessons he learned here and improve on them."
Rizzo has a specific plan in place for Harper's ascension through the minor leagues, but he declined to share it with reporters. Harper could reach the majors this season, but Rizzo wants to bring Harper along not just to get him to the big leagues, but to get him there with enough experience and confidence for him to thrive.
"I'm not going to rule anything out," Rizzo said. "He needs to have plenty of minor league at-bats to prepare himself to not only get to the major leagues, but stay in the major leagues and excel."
After Harper participated in his first major league spring training workout, he declared, "I'm here to make the team" and wondered why it couldn't be realistic. Until Saturday, he never let himself think he would not make the team.
"You know, no," Harper said. "I don't want to think that. I'm not ever going to think that. I understood that I wasn't going to make the team. I understood that completely from the first day. But I got to tell myself: 'You're here. You got to act like you're that star player on the team. You got to come out here every day, and you got to play like you're the guy.' "
On Feb. 21, Harper attended his first informal workout with the Nationals and, afterward, awed by his teammates' physical prowess, called his father and told him, "These guys are monsters." Between then and Saturday, Harper smashed any notion of an attitude issue like a belt-high fastball.
Before Harper received the news he had been sent down, he joked with second baseman Danny Espinosa, the player who lockered next to him, about his reaction to being hit by a pitch earlier, in the Nationals 6-5 win over the New York Yankees. Teammates picked on him in a way that let him know he was just one of the guys. Before one game, as Harper applied eye black at his locker, a teammate yelled from across the clubhouse, "Smear it!" - a nod to Harper's infamous style in high school and college.
"You've got to take everything out of it," Harper said. "Every single day, it was so much fun. I had a blast with all the guys. I got along with all the guys really well. It was just experience, being around the guys and learning what pro baseball is like."
Someday soon, it seems likely, Harper will be back, the player who fills Nationals Park and maybe pulls the franchise out of its on-field abyss. As he finished speaking with reporters, he looked up from his chair, with eye black still streaked under each eye from Saturday's game, his last, for now, as a major leaguer.
"Hopefully," he said, "I'll see you guys in July."