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Youthful Harper gets taste of majors
“It’s true,” Stairs says. “There’s not much I can say about it.”
Harper, though, has something to say.
“Matt Stairs could be my dad,” he cracks, grinning.
Harper’s youth is nothing short of astonishing, but at 6-foot-3, 225 pounds with size 15 feet, he is not exactly a boy in a man’s world.
No, he is the most exciting position prospect in baseball, a can’t-miss talent who draws comparisons to former prodigies such as Ken Griffey, Jr. and Alex Rodriguez.
Griffey and Rodriguez both were No. 1 overall draft picks out of high school. Harper skipped two years of high school to enroll last year at the College of Southern Nevada and become eligible for the draft last June.
The Nationals, to no one’s surprise, selected Harper with the top pick — then announced immediately they would move him from catcher to the outfield to take maximum advantage of his bat.
Eight months later, Harper finds himself in his first major-league camp. He looks like a big leaguer, walks like a big leaguer and talks like a big leaguer, though he is not close to a big leaguer yet.
“He definitely has that ‘It factor,’” Nationals utility man Jerry Hairston, Jr. says.
Not bad, considering two of Harper’s teammates, Stairs and catcher Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez, made their major-league debuts before Harper was even born.
“I was talking to him and I said, ‘How old are you again?’ He’s like, ‘I’m 18,’” says Nationals closer Drew Storen, who is 23.
“I was a junior in high school (at that age). I can’t imagine being a junior in high school and being here. I was just sitting at my locker looking at everybody, saying, ‘Oh, there goes Pudge. That’s so cool.’ I would just be frozen.”
The Nationals’ biggest star, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, is only 26, but keeps getting asked if Harper makes him feel old.
Nationals right fielder Jayson Werth, the team’s $126 million free agent, was 18 when the Orioles drafted him in the first round of the 1997 draft, but says there is no comparison.
“He’s light years ahead of where I was,” Werth says. “I was an infant. He’s a big kid.”
A big kid who plays like an adult.
Former major-league third baseman Rick Schu, the Nationals’ minor-league hitting coordinator, recalls seeing Harper for the first time in the Arizona Fall League. Schu, sitting along the first-base line, could hear Harper chattering from right field.
Harper’s zest for the game endears him to coaches and teammates. But his most impressive trait — besides an emerging humility and willingness to learn — is his advanced approach to hitting.
A handful of fans follow Harper from station to station at Friday’s workout, watching him bunt, hit in the batting cage, then take live batting practice, first against a Nationals coach, then right-hander Shairon Martis.
Harper sees seven pitches from Martis, taking four, swinging at only three. After fouling off Martis’ next-to-last pitch, he hits a hard line drive to the right side, a ball that a second baseman might have fielded on one hop. Or not.
Former major-league manager Davey Johnson, a Nationals special assistant, recalls a similar at-bat Harper had earlier in the week against right-hander Cole Kimball, who throws in the mid-90s and likely will be the Nats’ Triple-A closer.
Harper fouled off a pitch, swung through a fastball, then checked his swing on a changeup and a fastball, both of which were balls.
Kimball’s final pitch was a hard fastball, down and in. Harper, in Johnson’s words, “hit it in the pond.”
“I said, ‘Son, that was a pretty good at-bat,’” Johnson says, recalling his deadpan reaction. “He said, ‘I always swing like that.’”
Cocky? Sure. But not offensive.
Harper, as an amateur, developed a reputation for being, well, something of a teenage monster. He wore excessive eyeblack, earned some memorable ejections.
The Nationals aren’t seeing that guy.
Before Friday’s workout, Harper mostly sits quietly at his locker, occasionally engaging teammates who are sitting nearby. He is polite and thoroughly pleasant in a brief interview with two reporters — an interview Hairston interrupts when he drops a copy of Baseball America’s “Top 100 Prospects” issue in Harper’s locker, asking him to sign it.
“I’m trying to go out there and learn from all the veteran guys, see how Zim goes about his business, see how Werth goes about everything, just try to learn a lot of things from the veteran guys from the mental side and physical side of baseball,” Harper says. “I’m just really excited to be out there. I’m trying to enjoy every minute.”
“He can rub people the wrong way. But he’s one of those guys, I want him on my team,” Storen says. “Yeah, maybe somebody playing against him doesn’t like that. But you know what? We’re not trying to make friends.”
Stairs, as old school as they come, voices no complaints.
“He has that cockiness and swagger, which is expected, but it’s in a good way,” Stairs says. “The way he carries himself, the way he talks to us, he isn’t intimidated. He talks with a lot of confidence, and it carries over to the way he plays.
“He’s not loud. He’s quiet, down to Earth. He has good comebacks when you start ragging him. What I heard about him being cocky, I haven’t seen.”
So, how quickly can Harper reach the majors?
Remember, he has yet to play a professional inning, other than in the Arizona Fall League, when he batted .343 with six extra-base hits in nine games, eliciting predictions of stardom from rival scouts.
The Nationals plan to start Harper at their low Class-A affiliate in Hagerstown, Md. Harper’s original goal was a September call-up, but he likely will not join the team before June 2012. He will be 19 then, the same age that Griffey and Pudge Rodriguez were when they made their major-league debuts.
“He has never played every day; the everyday-ness of this game is one of the biggest things you have to overcome,” Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo says.
“Just learning to be a teammate. Riding the buses is part of the process. Battling through slumps for the first time is part of the process. You’re kind of paying your dues. The perception among your teammates is that you have to earn it. You grind it out in the minor leagues. You work your way up there. You earn their respect.”
Harper, asked to predict his timetable, says, “I have no idea. I’m just going to go out and play the game I know how to play and look to a higher power to take care of that. I’m going to try to get better every single day, impress every single day. That’s what I’m worried about right now.”
Hairston told him, “Enjoy the process. Enjoy being an 18-year-old in big-league camp.”
Rodriguez said, “Don’t change anything. It’s just another game in a different ballpark. Just zone in and play like you know how to play and everything will go all right.”
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For all of Harper’s gifts, it’s not as if he is a finished product. Stairs says Harper needs to “quiet down” his head and upper body at the plate. And, of course, he must refine his skills in the outfield. Initially, the Nats intend to use him in center as well as right.
Rodriguez, entering his 21st season as a major-league catcher, says Harper’s offensive ability indeed makes him too valuable to risk beating up behind the plate.
Harper, too, seems grateful for the change in positions, saying, “I get to stand out there and catch a flyball here and there and throw some guys out — and worry about hitting a lot. That’s what I like. I love to hit the baseball.”
In case anyone hadn’t noticed.
Harper talks about diving for balls in the outfield and getting his uniform dirty, joking that he wants to make the Nationals’ clubhouse attendants “work a little bit.”
If his tone were different, he might sound like some spoiled kid with a five-year, $9.9 million contract and a $6.25 million bonus.
But that’s not how Harper sounds at all.
No, he sounds like an 18-year-old who loves to play a little boy’s game. A big kid who just wants to have fun.
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