- The Washington Times - Monday, March 19, 2012

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

VIERA, Fla. — With a talent like Bryce Harper, it isn’t a question of if, it’s a question of when. Of course, there aren’t many talents like Bryce Harper, so the Washington Nationals want to make doubly sure they get the “when” part right. The kid, after all, is just 19. He’s got another 15 or 20 years of … posing with baseballs in his mouth.

Sending Harper down to Triple-A, then, where his abilities can be brought to a boil, is a no-brainer for the Nationals. As he showed Sunday, when he whiffed in his first four times up against Detroit, he isn’t quite ready to be, as he puts it, “a game-changer” on the major-league level. But as he also showed Sunday, when he bashed a double off the center-field wall in his final at bat, he isn’t that far away, either.

Maybe a few months in Syracuse is all he’ll need to home in on the knee-buckling breaking stuff and nasty left-handed pitching he’ll get a steady diet of in the bigs — the final pieces in the puzzle for just about any hitter. Or maybe he’ll need longer than a few months. The point is, there’s no hurry. When he’s ready for the Nats, the Nats will be ready for him.

“If I went to the big leagues and I sat [on the bench] … I don’t want that,” he said after Davey Johnson gave him the news. “I’m a guy that wants to play every single day and get better. Going to Triple-A, you’re not facing big-league guys, but you’re facing guys that have been there and that are working their ways up. So it’s going to be good for me.”

It’s interesting. What the Nationals are going through with Harper is what the Redskins probably will be going through with Robert Griffin III later this year. There will be a debate, internally and among the fan base, about when Griffin should be handed the keys to the offense, whether it should be from the get-go or whether he should be brought along more slowly.

It can be a delicate process, the development of an NFL quarterback — as with any other valuable athletic commodity. Naturally, the trial-by-fire approach is the most expeditious, but it also carries the greatest risk. The latter is especially true of quarterbacks, not just because of the position’s high visibility but because of the responsibility that comes with it. As the QB goes, so, usually, goes the offense. There’s much opportunity for glory, sure, but there’s just as much opportunity for blame, blame that may not rest easily on 22-year-old shoulders.

“How soon is too soon?” is a game every sport plays with varying amounts of trepidation. In basketball and hockey, it’s not unusual for a player Harper’s age, or even younger, to make an impact. Kevin Durant, just to throw out one name, averaged 20 points a game for the Oklahoma City Thunder at 19, and Sidney Crosby, to throw out another, was a 102-point man for the Pittsburgh Penguins at 18. (Does anyone doubt, for that matter, that Alex Ovechkin, who scored 52 goals for the Capitals at 20, would have been a force at 19 if the NHL hadn’t locked everybody out that season?)

In baseball, though, such prodigies are rarer, and in football they’re unheard of (because of the NFL’s prohibition against cradle robbing). The gold standard, performance-wise, for a player of Harper’s vintage — in recent decades, at least — is Ken Griffey Jr.’s rookie season with Seattle in 1989 (16 homers, .264 batting average). Not exactly 20 points a game, is it?

But beyond that, ballclubs are so much more careful these days with prospects, particularly pitchers. Look at how nurturing the Nationals were with Stephen Strasburg — and he still ended up needing Tommy John surgery. Rest assured Harper will get the same hovering treatment. In fact, think of Johnson and Mike Rizzo as his adoptive Helicoptor Parents.

Still, Bryce’s demotion wasn’t an easy call for the manager, who envisions him as the team’s center fielder of the future. “It’s no secret I like his bat potential,” Davey said. “And I’m not getting any younger. The temptation was there.”

He and the Nats wisely resisted it, though. Some things are worth waiting for, and Bryce Harper definitely falls in that category.

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