SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — There’s a video on the Internet of Bryce Harper.
Well, to be accurate, there are hundreds of thousands of videos of the most hyped power-hitting prospect in a generation. Some are favorable, others less so, but all chronicle nearly every move the Washington Nationals’ prized minor leaguer makes.
When it comes to being Bryce Harper - the 19-year-old most people seemingly love to hate, but love to watch play even more - a cellphone video camera is never far away.
The attention, director of player development Doug Harris said, is “significant.” Many people call him unspeakable things and hope for him to fail - perhaps because they’ve been watching him perform superhuman acts since before he was old enough to drive.
One talent evaluator watching the Arizona Fall League, where Harper is playing his second season, opined that he might be largely misunderstood - a player vilified for playing the game hard on every play in a time when that’s no longer the norm for every player. Even in the outfield, where he played exclusively this year for the first time, he rarely gets bored because “fans keep me in it and opposing bullpens keep me in it.”
But he’d be lying if he said he didn’t revel in it.
“I can’t say I don’t like the attention. I like it,” Harper said. “It comes with the territory. If people are talking about you, you must be good. If they weren’t talking about me, I’d be pretty [ticked] off.”
Awaiting his arrival
Ideally what they’ll be talking about next year is when the Nationals will be calling Harper up to the majors, though everyone in the organization declines to estimate when - if at all - it might happen.
He played 109 minor league games this season, 72 with Single-A Hagerstown and 37 with Double-A Harrisburg - all with the eyes of a franchise watching intently.
“I don’t really care what’s going on up in the big leagues,” Harper said, admitting if he did he might have to combat some frustrations that he wasn’t already there. “[I’m] in Harrisburg. [I’m] in Hagerstown. My head can’t be in Washington. It’s got to be in Hagerstown or Harrisburg. I keep my head out of that. I don’t really care. … Seeing those guys do good up there, I think that’s huge. We’ve got a lot of young talent coming up, [and] I’m excited to see what happens in the near future.”
How near, though, is the one question everyone wants answered.
“It would not surprise me if somehow he was in the big leagues next year at some point,” said Paul Menhart, the pitching coach for Single-A Potomac this past season and the Nationals’ representative on the Scottsdale Scorpions’ coaching staff. “He’s got all the tools that are necessary. He just needs the experience and the reps right now for the powers that be to really think that he’s ready. Right now, he’s well on his way.”
Room for improvement
So what’s left to get him there?
To those who saw him most this season, Harper’s hitting was never in question. His outfield instincts - keeping in check his aggressiveness and an arm that has an ability to wow on every play - and his base running need seasoning. He’s aware of those things, relying on coaches the Nationals have set up around him such as outfield instructor Tony Tarasco and Double-A manager Tony Beasley to help when a question arises.
“I think he learned a lot [this year],” Harris said. “He’s a very aggressive player by nature, and one of the main things he’s learned to do is channel his aggressiveness and make more intelligent decisions in the heat of the battle.”
How much of that progress he shows in the AFL, where he had eight hits (four for extra bases) and four walks in his past six games entering Monday, could go a long way toward helping make offseason decisions for the Nationals. There is a feeling around the team that while management said from early on that Harper would not be a major leaguer in 2011, no such assurances can be given for 2012.
If he does make the jump, it would make him just the fourth teenager to make his major league debut in the past five years, joining Justin Upton (Arizona), Madison Bumgarner (San Francisco) and Mike Trout (Los Angeles Angels).
“Age is just a number,” Harper said last week. “If you can play, you can play. If you’ve got a guy who is 17 and he can play and you want to throw him in [Double-A], throw him in dubs. If he struggles, he struggles. Let him work out of it - just let him play.”
It’s that attitude that will send Harper into his second big-league spring training thinking the same thing he did when he arrived last February for his first: “I’m trying to make the club.”
“It’s got to be tough facing [Philadelphia’s] Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee and all those guys, but I think it’d be a lot of fun,” Harper said. “I’m going to work my [tail] off, and I’m going to play hard, like I always do. … If I get sent down again, that’s what happens but, like I said, I’m going in there trying to make that team.”
Nationals general manger Mike Rizzo has reminded Harper repeatedly that it’s not about where he begins a season but where he finishes it. If he doesn’t break camp with the big-league team but arrives at some point and sticks, it’ll make no difference.
Betting on success
In the meantime, fans will have to settle for Internet videos of Harper, of which there are plenty. There he is, hitting a home run in Single-A - sweet revenge off a pitcher who’d hit him with a pitch the night before - and then regrettably blowing kisses toward that same pitcher as he rounded the bases.
Or chucking his helmet and getting in the face of an umpire following a strike call. Or even here, in the AFL, when he hits a line drive off the 2011 No. 1 overall pick in the MLB draft, Pittsburgh’s power right-hander Gerrit Cole, a camera is always rolling.
If he had his pick, he’d point people to one particular video - the one that documents what Harper calls the best moment of his year. It’s the one that, theoretically, should have earned Harper $100.
In the week leading up to Harper’s Aug. 12 walk-off two-run homer that not only won the game but took flight over the roughly 30-foot-high batter’s eye 410 feet away in dead center field in Harrisburg, Harper and first baseman Tyler Moore took turns trying to do just that in batting practice.
“We were just trying so hard just to go to dead center [in batting practice] all week,” Harper said, smiling at the memory “Finally we got into the game and I just said ‘I bet you a hundred bucks I’ll hit it over the batter’s eye this week.’ He took my bet.”
Said Harrisburg closer Rafael Martin: “In the bullpen we’re like, ‘Hit it out, hit it out,’ and when he did, it was like, ‘Oh … my … God. He’s got some man power.”
After he’s done telling the story, Harper slips in the fact that Moore - a teammate he “loves” and who “helps keep you humble” - never actually paid off the bet.
The tale was never about the money for the guy who made about $1.75 million this year. It was about remembering the moment Harper found to be tops in a season filled with memorable ones - good, and bad.
He’ll be the first to tell you, though, that if next year included his major league debut, he’d make a new list.
• Amanda Comak can be reached at email@example.com.
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