Bryce Harper reported to Nationals spring training camp yesterday and already, before he has had even one exhibition game at bat, teammates, coaches, and the media are speculating whether the 19-year-old can make the MLB squad.
“I’m going work as hard as I can, keep my mouth shut and play,” Harper said. “I’m going to make their decision hard as much as I can. I want to be up here. I want to play, and I want to play in D.C.”
“Even last year, I was disappointed,” Harper said. “I came here, and I wanted to make the team last year. This year, I’m trying to come here and make the team. Hopefully, things work out and we won’t have to talk about me going down to the minors.”
The storyline has caught the attention of National media outlets from Yahoo! to ESPN as baseball writers spin out their spring training previews and blog posts about stories to watch this March. It's a narrative that will sell tickets and draw media attention to Viera, Florida, and clearly that is something that Washington is interested in doing.
The Nationals front office has said that Harper will have a chance to play his way on to the team if he comes to camp and produces. Team skipper Davey Johnson, who famously coached a 19-year-old Dwight Gooden in New York, said he would love to have the mega-prospect in Washington. But how much of this is real? How much of it should be?
While undeniably talented, it's important to keep in mind that in his one professional season Harper had only 37 games played in Double-A. He hit just .256/.329/.395 with three home runs and 12 RBI. That hardly screams preparedness for the most competitive level of baseball in the world. And while his potential is off the charts when compared to his peers, even if you look at other players who made the jump to the Major Leagues when they were 19/20, he has less experience than them.
Alex Rodriguez had 84 games of Triple-A experience before becoming an everyday player in Seattle. Ken Griffey Jr. made the jump from Double-A to the MLB, but even he had 92 games at that level under his belt, and he hit .316 with 15 home runs at that level. A more recent comparable, Mike Stanton, who some speculate was rushed to the Majors, at 132 games at Double-A before jumping into the Marlins lineup.
Nats GM Mike Rizzo is also a very patient man. It's perhaps one of his best qualities as a general manager, and he has shown it with previous prospects as well as with injury rehabilitation in the past. He'd rather have his players go through the motions, not skip any steps, and be 100% ready to perform when they make it to the team in Washington. I really see no reason why it would be any different with Bryce Harper this spring.
It's important to remember that while it is a place to showcase where he is in his development, his stint with the Nationals this spring should hardly be considered a tryout. He needs to be developed, he needs to learn to master Double and Triple-A baseball before he makes the jump to Washington, and that fact will not change regardless of if he hits .550 with 11 home runs off of spring training pitching. What will his spring stats matter if MLB pitchers identify and capitalize on his weaknesses a few weeks later in games that count?
I think it will be a lot of fun seeing Harper push for an MLB spot, and I think it will be great for Nationals baseball as well as the kid himself to have him push other players and himself to prove everyone wrong. In the end though, it comes down to business. I don't see Washington simply taking a stab at placing him in the outfield on opening day just to see what happens.