VIERA, Fla. | On the day that Bryce Harper was told for the first time in his life that he didn’t make a baseball team, he was sitting in the Nationals’ major league clubhouse at Space Coast Stadium.
It didn’t matter that Harper, at 18 years old, should have been sitting inside a chemistry or calculus class at a high school in Nevada, thousands of miles away from a major league spring training game against the New York Yankees.
Nor did it matter that Harper, who hit .389 in 18 games in big-league camp, knew from the day he reported to Nationals spring training that there was no way he’d make the major league team.
Getting cut hurt.
“I understood that I wasn’t going to make the team,” Harper said that day, the eye black smeared across his cheeks smudged and worn.
“I understood that completely from the first day, but I’ve got to tell myself, ‘Hey, you’re here, you’ve got to act like you’re that star player on the team. You’ve got to come out here every day, and you’ve got to play like you’re the guy.’ “
The good news for Harper - and the Nationals - is that everyone involved thinks that, eventually, he will be the guy.
From the high fastballs he was able to connect with and drive, to his knowledge of the strike zone, to his preparation and his maturity on the field, Harper left everyone impressed - and more than one person wondering if his debut as a Washington National could come this season.
“I would not be surprised if he got here this year, late, if at all,” Nationals manager Jim Riggleman said. “But I’ll tell you, minor league baseball is tough. We’ll see when he gets to Double-A. There’ll be some wily veterans in Double-A who are going to make his progress as tough as possible.”
Harper will begin this season at Single-A Hagerstown where, despite a sprained left ankle suffered March 21, he is expected to be ready by the opener in Rome, Ga., on April 7. How fast he moves through the Nationals’ organization after that will depend on just how well he does.
One talent evaluator said Harper is easily the best prospect in the organization, with “no ifs, ands or buts about it.”
Realistically, chances are that Harper won’t make his first on-field appearance in Washington until 2012, but no one has officially ruled out a late 2011 call up. Unlike Stephen Strasburg, whom the Nationals had on a clear schedule of starts before he got the call to the big leagues, Harper’s advancement will depend more on how he handles the rigors of each minor league level.
“I don’t foresee him being in the big leagues this year,” Nationals general manger Mike Rizzo said. “Like any other player, he needs development in the minor leagues. … You look around, the guys that haven’t played very long in the minor leagues at age 18, and you can count them on one hand.
“If he’s the greatest of the great players, even the great ones went to the minor leagues and really got their jump-start season at the age of 19 or 20.”