At 19, Harper figures he’s ready for prime time

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Then it was on to the College of Southern Nevada, mainly because it was a school that used wooden bats in conference play instead of the aluminum kind that might give a false sense of his power. In 66 games, he smashed 31 homers. The school’s previous record was 12.

Naturally, he was picked No. 1 by the Nationals in 2010, signing a contract for just a shade under $10 million. (He recently used some of the money to purchase a home for his mother.) When Harper reported to camp the next spring, he saw no reason why he couldn’t start right away. Washington decided some time in the minors was the more prudent path, shipping him off to the not-so-primetime Sally League.

“He expected to make the team when he was 18 years old,” Johnson said. “He was kind of shocked when he didn’t break north.”

After batting .318 with 14 homers, 46 RBIs and 19 stolen bases at Class A Hagerstown, Harper was promoted to Harrisburg in the Double-A Eastern League. There, he looked a little more human _ .256 with three homers, 12 RBIs and seven stolen bases _ before a hamstring injury cut short his season. Another year or two in the minors seems logical, especially since it would push back the timeline for Harper to be eligible for the really big money of arbitration and free agency, but he’s never taken the same path as everyone else.

He’s here to make the team, which sets up one of the most intriguing issues in all of spring training.

“I don’t really need to show them anything,” Harper said. “I just need to come out here and play my game, play hard, just try to interact with all the guys, let them get to know me. Davey has seen me play before. They’ve all seen me play. They know what I’m about. They know what I can do.”

The Nationals seem to be of two mindsets. There’s general manager Mike Rizzo, who speaks cautiously of rushing Harper to the majors too quickly. Then there’s Johnson, who may be the oldest manager in the majors at 69 but isn’t against giving Harper a legitimate chance to earn a starting job.

Back in the 1980s, when he was managing the New York Mets, Johnson had a bright young pitching prospect named Dwight Gooden. He was only 19, but the manager felt he was ready to pitch in the big leagues. The front office wanted to give the kid another year in the minors, but Johnson lobbied hard and got his way. Turns out, he was right on the mark. Gooden won 17 games and was named to the All-Star team.

“I’ve got an open mind about everybody in this camp,” Johnson said. “He has the highest ceiling just off what I’ve seen, but whether it plays out that way or not, time will tell. I’m not locked in on anybody.”

Johnson intends to give Harper every chance to make the team, starting with the very first round of live pitching Sunday. He’ll be placed in one of the main hitting groups and could be matched against Washington’s other phenom, Stephen Strasburg. When the Grapefruit League games begin, look for Harper to get most of his playing time in the early innings, so he’ll be going against big league pitchers rather than end-of-the-roster guys who have no chance to make the team.

“I’m going to compare apples to apples,” Johnson said. “The talent and makeup is off the charts. That should lead to quality performances.”

Rizzo is a bit more restrained.

“It’s extremely tough for a 19-year-old to make it,” the GM said. “There’s not that many with the ability level to play in the big leagues. But we’re going to keep an open mind to it. If we feel he’s ready developmentally to handle the rigors of a major league season, we’ll be open-minded about it.

“The talent level is definitely there,” Rizzo added. “But there’s an experience level that needs to be reached, an emotional level, the rigors of the everydayness of the majors leagues, that’s all something we have to think about.”

Harper seems to be working hard to fit in. During batting practice Saturday, he kept to himself but glanced over a few times at Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth, grinning a bit as the veterans cut up among themselves.

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