MLB

Harper on way, and Nats can hardly wait

Bryce Harper at Spring Training
When Nats rookie Bryce Harper connects, it makes "a different sound."
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Ken Rosenthal

Ken Rosenthal has been the FOXSports.com's Senior MLB Writer since August 2005. He appears weekly on MLB on FOX, FOX Sports Radio and MLB Network. He's a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America. Follow him on Twitter.

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VIERA, Fla.

Here’s something the Washington Nationals don’t talk much about, the flip side of the question, “Should Bryce Harper be our Opening Day right fielder?”

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If Harper doesn’t make the club, the Nats’ third outfield position spot likely would rotate between veterans with far less upside.

That’s fine if the Nats intend to devote 2012 to another year of development. But rest assured, that is not manager Davey Johnson’s plan.

No, Johnson sees the Nationals as a contender, an immediate contender. When I complimented him on the Nats’ talent Sunday, he replied with his trademark confidence, “I don’t think it’s a secret that we’re going to be pretty good.”

So, who do you think Johnson would rather see in right field, the 19-year-old Harper or some combination of Roger Bernadina, Rick Ankiel and Mark DeRosa?

Johnson is not going to answer that question yet, even though one club source says he is “adamant” about opening the season with Harper, who arguably is the game’s best offensive prospect since Alex Rodriguez.

Here’s the problem: Harper has yet to play at Triple A, and had only a .724 OPS in 147 plate appearances at Double A last season. As one rival scout asked, “What would it hurt for him to have another 350 at-bats in the minors?”

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Johnson probably would counter that A-Rod made his major-league debut at 18, Ken Griffey Jr. at 19. Heck, with the New York Mets, Johnson managed Dwight Gooden at 19, Darryl Strawberry at 21.

Prediction: Harper will be in the majors quickly, but not before April 25. He must remain in the minors a minimum of 20 days for the Nationals to delay his free agency by one year.

The Nats can buy additional time with Harper by acquiring an established center fielder this spring, forcing Jayson Werth back to right. But even then, it will be difficult for them to prolong the inevitable.

General manager Mike Rizzo said the timing of Harper’s promotion will hinge solely on Harper, not the team’s needs, not the addition of a center fielder, not the fear of Harper gaining an extra year of arbitration as a Super Two player.

The new labor agreement increases the number of arbitration-eligible players among two-year players from 17 percent to 22 percent, depending upon their service. The Nationals, to avoid Harper becoming a Super Two, probably would need to hold off on him until at least mid-June.

Johnson and his coaches might lose their minds if it takes that long.

“I throw (batting practice) to him every day,” Nationals third base coach Bo Porter said. “It’s a different sound. You throw out ... the age, just look at the ability.

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“This guy, he is a polished, polished 19-year-old. They don’t come along that often.”

Frankly, the entire Super Two question is ridiculous, an enduring blight on the sport. In no other professional league do teams hold back players — and cost themselves victories — due to long-term economic concerns.

The Cleveland Cavaliers didn’t wait on LeBron James. The Pittsburgh Penguins didn’t wait on Sidney Crosby. The Nationals shouldn’t wait on Harper unless they believe he needs more development.

Rizzo acknowledged that the Super Two question would be “a very small factor” in the Nationals’ decision, but pointed out a unique twist — the financial benefits of keeping Harper actually might outweigh the costs.

“I don’t think we’ve done a study on the difference between him being a Super Two and the number of people he would put in the seats,” Rizzo said.

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Johnson, meanwhile, clearly does not believe his club should be bothered with matters as mundane as a player’s arbitration clock.

“I never look at what a guy is making, or, for that matter, how old he is,” Johnson said. “My job is to evaluate talent.

“I’ll say this: Everybody writes a lot about Super Twos and all that stuff. That probably plays more into it if you’re a second-division ballclub.

“If you’re a contender, I don’t think contenders think about that. Are we a bonafide contender? Are we pretending? Are we second-division? Are we looking for three years down the road? That’s more the question.”

And, as you might have guessed, Johnson doesn’t see the Nats as a second-division club.

“I don’t,” he said. “I said that at the end of last year. Once we expanded the rosters, I had more of a feel for what we had, where we’re at. To a man, they’re not just following my lead. They feel they can contend.”

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Rizzo, however, said his decision on Harper will not be influenced by the potential for the Nationals to contend.

“It has no bearing on me whatsoever,” Rizzo said. “We’re going to develop him to maximize his potential and his performance. If the choice was to win more games in '12 and not develop him properly, we would take proper development as the course of action.”

OK, but what is the one thing Johnson thinks his offense is lacking? Left-handed presence. And what is Harper? A left-handed threat waiting to happen.

First baseman Adam LaRoche, a career .267 hitter, is the team’s most proven left-handed bat. Bernadina, who has a .668 career OPS, and Ankiel, who had a .659 OPS last season, also bat left-handed. Second baseman Danny Espinosa, a switch-hitter, was much better from the right side (.277) last season than the left (.223).

Still, it’s early — too early for the Nationals to pass judgment.

LaRoche, recovering from surgery on his left shoulder, remains limited in his throwing. If his comeback stalls, the Nats could move Michael Morse from left field to first, creating two openings in the outfield.

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A trade for a center fielder, on the other hand, would leave the Nationals with Morse and Werth on the corners — and seemingly no room for Harper.

Even then, Rizzo said, “I don’t think it would matter. It’s all about him. Is he ready? Do we feel he’s fully developed?

“We need to see the maturation of a well-rounded game, not so much what do we see with his at-bats or how he plays defense, but how he handles the totality of the major league scene. It’s mental, physical, emotional, that type of thing.”

Harper, naturally, thinks about forcing the issue.

“Absolutely,” he said. “Every single day. Everybody in the clubhouse thinks that way. Fifty-four guys in here want to make the club. Everybody will be disappointed if they don’t.”

Here’s guessing that Harper won’t be disappointed long.

Tagged: Nationals, Adam LaRoche

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