The Washington Times - January 30, 2012, 11:40AM

Spring training won’t begin for another three weeks or so but that hasn’t stopped the questions about this spring’s most-anticipated roster debate from already being lobbed: Where will Bryce Harper open the 2012 season?

Nationals manager Davey Johnson has made it clear that if Harper is one of the Nationals best-performing outfielders in spring training, he’d have no hesitation in adding him to the 25-man roster for opening day. That being said, ultimately the decision will be one that Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo has to sign off on and Rizzo has been quarterbacking Harper’s development plan from the start. 

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Speaking with reporters after Gio Gonzalez’s introductory press conference last week, he addressed the issue again.

“We’re going to bring the best 25 north,” Rizzo said. “If that includes Harper, it’s Harper. When I believe Harper is ready to play in the big leagues, he’ll be in the big leagues. We’re not going to hinder his progress but we’re not going to accelerate it to a point where I think it endangers his development and curtails his overall performance.”

Over the weekend via twitter and e-mail I got a few questions from readers (and followers) on this topic. There are obviously a portion of fans who’d love to see Harper in the major league from opening day this season and watch his ascension to superstardom in the big leagues all year. But there’s also a sector who’d trade a few Harper-less months at the major league level for more Harper in the long run.

And, unfortunately for those fans who fall into the first group, the latter are the ones who see the reasonable side of things. 

There are plenty of reasons for the Nationals to start Harper at the major league level on opening day — if he is indeed one of their best outfielders. He’d be a left-handed bat in a lineup that currently projects to contain just one every day player (Adam LaRoche) along with one switch hitter (Danny Espinosa) and a possible platoon player in Roger Bernadina. He’d also help add even more energy and excitement to what is already quite possibly the most anticipated Nationals season in their brief history. Johnson loves Harper and, as he’s mentioned several times, he has experience successfully bringing a teenager to the big leagues (Dwight Gooden) despite the hesitations of others. 

But there are more weighty reasons for the Nationals to hold off on Harper’s arrival. First, even some of the game’s greatest  major leaguers who debuted as teenagers — like old friend Ivan Rodriguez — didn’t open the year in the major leagues. Sure, others, like Ken Griffey Jr., did and were successful, but Griffey also played 129 games in the minor leagues over two seasons. Harper has played just 109. It’s not a huge gap, but rounding out Harper’s experience with another 30-40 games could be prudent for him developmentally. Even a handful of Triple-A at-bats could help better prepare Harper for the rigors and talent levels he’ll see in the major leagues and Triple-A manager Tony Beasley, who managed Harper at Double-A last year, is just the man to help continue guiding the Nationals’ phenom.

Harper’s development is concern No. 1 for the Nationals when it comes to potential promotions and Rizzo, who oversaw Arizona Diamondback star Justin Upton’s ascension, is confident that when Harper’s ready he won’t hesitate to promote him. But the fiscal concerns that come with bringing Harper to the major leagues on opening day cannot be overlooked.

Opening the year with Harper on the 25-man roster (assuming he sticks in the big leagues) means that he will become a free agent following the 2017 season. Delaying that arrival by even a few months. however, would mean that the Nationals have Harper under team control through the 2018 season. An entire extra year of Harper when he’s just 25 years old and presumably more into his prime in exchange for allowing him to get more seasoning in the minor leagues sure sounds like a win-win for everyone. Of course that’s excluding Harper’s own opinion which, I’d venture to guess is that he’s done with the minor leagues and ready for the show. 

We’ll have plenty more time to debate Harper’s season-opening landing spot and his spring training performance will certainly have something to say about it but for the fans who are clamoring for Harper for April and May of 2012, don’t forget that getting him means free agency will beckon for him an entire season earlier. Will two months of having Harper in the big leagues this year be the difference between the Nationals becoming serious contenders and going on a deep playoff run? Will it be worth the risk?