Harper aims to be on Nats’ Opening Day roster

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VIERA, Fla. — For months, Bryce Harper waited for this day. The disappointment over being cut from major league spring training in 2011 stayed with him so long that in his first comments to the media in 2012, he mentioned it. It’s not something he’d like to experience again.

Just as he did last year as a confident 18-year-old, Harper made it clear Monday that he’s not here to be a wide-eyed spectator. He’s here to make sure he’s on that flight heading north.

“I’m going to come in here and work as hard as I can, keep my mouth shut and play,” Harper said, arriving to camp four days before he was required. “If I come out here and work hard in the outfield and work hard hitting and try to make their decision hard, that’s the most I can do. If they want to send me back down, that’s them. But I want to be up here. I want to play, and I want to play in D.C.”

By now, the reasons against him making the team are well-documented. He’d join rare company by being a 19-year-old debuting in the major leagues, he’d skip Triple-A entirely and the Nationals could lose him to free agency a year earlier than if he spends at least 21 days in the minor leagues in 2012. There’s also the matter of maturity — perhaps the biggest thing the Nationals want to see.

Harper on Monday blended in well in a clubhouse full of major leaguers with whom he was acquainted, chatting with Ryan Zimmerman, exchanging hellos with second baseman Danny Espinosa, who he worked out with this offseason at agent Scott Boras’ facility in Southern California.

He also didn’t back away when asked about the criticism he receives for his outspoken ways, whether in person or on Twitter.

“I’m going to get blown up either way,” Harper said. “If I say something right or say something wrong, that’s just how it’s going to be. There’s nothing I can really do about that. Some things, maybe I shouldn’t say. Some things I’ve got to learn from. And there’s some things I should just keep my mouth shut on. I need to grow up in that aspect, I guess. I feel good with what I say and I’m not going to back down with anything. I like interacting with fans and letting them know who I really am. I want everybody to know the real me.”

He also has a major supporter in manager Davey Johnson, who shared a hug with Harper upon his arrival. Before the winter meetings in December, Johnson urged general manager Mike Rizzo to “keep an open mind” about Harper, especially as a left-handed presence in the lineup. He “got the feeling [last year] that [the major leagues] wouldn’t have been overpowering to him,” he saw a vacancy for an everyday outfielder and put Harper “in the mix” to compete for it.

So just how likely is it that Harper is the team’s right fielder in six weeks?

“Sure took long for that question to be asked,” Johnson quipped.

At least this much we know: Harper will be given a chance to compete, and he’ll be given a chance to show that he belongs in the majors.

The Nationals will hold their first workout Tuesday morning with a roster that, for the first time in their short history, has very few question marks. Maybe three positions are going to feature some competition (fifth starter, utility infielder and another batter who, preferably, could play the outfield) — and even Johnson said that’d be a stretch.

But one of those spots could wind up being Harper‘s.

He learned from 2011, he said, a season that was cut short after 109 games between Single-A and Double-A because of a hamstring strain. He learned about preparation, about maintaining his strength throughout the season with work in the weight room, about how to play the outfield as a converted catcher. He knows there’s still room for improvement, noting he wants to become “Gold Glove out there, too” and not just “known as a hitter.”

None of it tempered his expectations for 2012.

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