VIERA, Fla. — In spring training, the Washington Nationals are so excited about themselves they’re like a roomful of puppies. But the largest of the young dogs is Bryce Harper. All eyes are on him — especially the eyes of his own teammates.
They want him among them. And they want him soon. Starting Saturday, with the first exhibition, they hope Harper blasts his way into their lineup ASAP. This is a team that, to be a playoff contender, has one glaring need: a left-handed-hitting corner outfielder who would add instant punch to a suspect attack and allow Jayson Werth to move to center field.
Manager Davey Johnson plows the road for Harper, even when he pretends he doesn’t.
“My mind is not made up. I want everybody else to be open-minded, too, including you all in the media and” General Manager Mike Rizzo, Johnson said about Harper being in Washington on opening day or soon thereafter. “If he can handle it, so be it. I’m not worried about him.”
How does “age 19” weigh in?
“It doesn’t. Did I care that Dwight Gooden was 18 when I asked the Mets to move him up from A-ball to the AAA World Series at the end of the season? I knew he could flat-out pitch,” Johnson said. “You can play or you can’t.”
Johnson’s not alone in his enthusiasm. In the Nats’ clubhouse, MLB Network plays on a huge flat screen all the time. Recently, the man on that screen was Harper himself. In a five-minute piece, he lifted huge weights, dreamed big about his future and was touted as “the best prospect” there’s ever been.
With teammates around him, Harper turned his back to the TV. But they didn’t. They cut their eyes at the screen, then back to the actual person; he stood, jersey off, some of the broadest shoulders looking like a V-shaped billboard for his vast potential. Harper has stolen Mike Schmidt’s physique at 25, but on a bigger frame.
“Bryce is so much bigger than last year,” Storen said. “With all the lifting, he’s a monster. We’ve got big guys on this club, but he’s just ridiculous.”
Harper says he’s grown an inch-and-a-half since last spring and is 6 feet 3, 225 pounds; but, after watching his older brother grow to 6-6 in the past couple of years, he hopes that he may eventually be 6-5 and 250 pounds.
Last year, the Nats were slightly skeptical of the Harper hype. Now, they’ve seen and heard enough to believe. And with the “Joe Namath 12” tag that vets put in place of the nameplate above his locker, they’ve deemed him worthy of teasing — the best a rookie gets.
“That guy has had a target on his back for years,” Storen said. “Certain players enjoy the challenge. He’s been doing unbelievable things all his life. You read stuff, wonder what he’s like. Now he’s been around us a while. He’s got a good [baseball] make-up, and he’ll fight through [failure]. You love the way he goes after it.”
Harper has tried to blend, as much as is in his nature, since arriving in camp in an eye-catching black baseball hat with four vertical white bars on the front with a fifth diagonal bar slashed through them, as if you’d counted to “five” with chalk on a blackboard. Why? “Beckham and Kobe wear it.”
Such smite-your-forehead moments are outnumbered by the times Harper says the right things and, as an avid reader of sports history, seems to mean them.
“There are so many things I have to improve,” he said. “If I have to go to the minors, which I don’t want to talk about, that happens, too. . . . I want to make it as hard on them as I can. We have so much talent it’s unreal. I can’t wait to see how good we could be in the next two years.”
We? He can’t help it. His whole life is an appointment with the future.
At first, I thought Johnson was crazy, pushing too hard for a player who struggled a bit at Class AA last year and has made too many look-at-me headlines. Give him a half-year more, at least, in the minors. What’s the harm? But I’m changing my mind. Assuming old pros such as Livan Hernandez, who starts for the Houston Astros on Saturday against the Nats, don’t mess with his mind too much, when would it make sense to bring up Harper if he plays well?
Circle April 26 on your baseball calendar as a potential Harper debut. By keeping Harper in the minors for 21 days to start the season, he couldn’t become a free agent until after 2018, rather than 2017. (That’s the MLB rule.) Obviously, you don’t want to give away a full year of Harper at age 25 for the sake of three weeks this season. If Harper starts opening day, and becomes free agency eligible after 2017, somebody’s lost his mind.
However, if the Nats bring up Harper early in the season, he’ll become a Super Two player who’s eligible for salary arbitration a year sooner; that might cost the Nats $10 million or more someday if he’s as good as Ryan Howard. This year, to avoid triggering such Super Two status under the new CBA rules, teams may hold back players until late June.
The Nats faced similar decisions in 2010. They brought up Storen fast in May — letting him become a Super Two — because he was ready for the majors and the bullpen needed him. For good developmental reasons, Strasburg didn’t come up until June. No Super Two for you.
The Nats have opened their wallets recently with $152 million in sensible but not risk-free contract extensions to Ryan Zimmerman, Mike Morse and Gio Gonzalez. Fifty more games of Harper might not mean so much. At 19, even Mickey Mantle hit just .267 with 13 homers and Ken Griffey Jr., .264 with 16. But it could also be worth a vital extra game or two by September.
What has quickly become clear in Viera is that so many coaches and players, as well as the manager, are impressed with Harper that the right field job — by midseason at the latest — is probably now his to lose.
Isn’t this just more pressure on a teenager? Or, more likely, is that exactly what he loves?
“It’s always great to see a big talent arrive,” Storen said. “Bring those type of guys right in.”
For Thomas Boswell’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/