VIERA, FLA. — Bryce Harper arrived at Space Coast Stadium on Tuesday morning, warmly greeted his teammates and unpacked the boxes of equipment waiting for him at his locker.
Within an hour, the Nationals starting left fielder was back on the field, participating in morning drills and eventually taking a round of batting practice inside the main stadium. The question for Harper, who didn’t speak with the media, but is expected to do so on Wednesday, is how the team will handle him coming off left knee surgery in November to repair a chronically inflamed bursa sac.
“We’re going to monitor him. We’re going to see how his knee reacts,” Nats manager Matt Williams said earlier this week. “Even in a rehab situation, there’s no way to really simulate a game or the stuff that we do on the field until you do it. That’s why guys go out on rehab and play games, because you just can’t do it.”
And so the team will take a wait-and-see approach with its 21-year-old star, who was a better offensive player in 2013 than during his rookie season, but appeared in 21 fewer games thanks to that knee injury. Harper admitted last month at the organization’s NatsFest event that he’d been in pain even longer than most knew. He banged into a wall during an April series in Atlanta and then did the same in a more violent collision with the fence at Dodger Stadium in May.
“Hopefully, I don’t have to go through any of that again,” Harper said. “I don’t like getting hurt. I like being on the field. I like playing. I’m just going to go into this year trying to get better every day and see where we’re at in the end.”
Tuesday was the date all Washington position players had to report to camp. Pitchers and catchers arrived last week. Only veteran outfielder Jayson Werth wasn’t seen at Space Coast Stadium, though Williams later said that everyone was in town and accounted for. Position players will take physicals on Wednesday and the team will have its first full squad workout under Williams on Thursday.
Harper finished with 424 at-bats. He batted .274 with 20 homers and 58 RBI. His OPS rose from .817 to .854. But he was also in pain virtually the entire season and eventually accepted that surgery was necessary. It made for a roller-coaster year, including a drop from 98 to 86 wins, that Harper is ready to put behind him.
“We had ups and downs last year and I don’t really want to think about last year,” Harper said last month. “There’s nothing to talk about. Everybody knows what happened last year, everybody knows what I did last year and how I got hurt. I want to focus on this year and what I need to do to get better.”
But first he has to make it to the March 31 opener at the New York Mets healthy. In January, Harper was rehabbing his knee three times per week “day and night” to get it ready for spring training. Harper said he sprinted for the first time after surgery in early January. That meant for the first time in almost a year he could go through baseball activities without any pain – hitting, running and tracking balls in the outfield. But that doesn’t mean the Nats are simply going to throw him into the mix.
Williams said he doesn’t see any issues with Harper’s knee now. But the monitoring process will go day-by-day. If Harper makes it through the next 10 days in good shape, and is ready to participate in games when they start Feb. 28, the club will remain mindful of the toll spring training fields can take on players.
By mid-March the hot Florida sun can bake fields and make them harder. That’s not helped when the winds pick up. Multiple innings on such turf probably isn’t in Harper’s best interest. He wants to be ready for the Mets and opening day. What happens before then isn’t relevant.
“Trying to get back to full strength and see where I can get by spring training,” Harper said last month. “See if I can go through spring training and get to 100 percent by the time the season starts and see where I’m at.”