Harper’s big league future is bright

On Sunday, Bryce Harper made his first appearance in the All-Star Futures Game.

It will also be his last.

Harper won’t be eligible to appear at next year’s event in Kansas City, because he will be a big leaguer with the Washington Nationals by then. Sure, he’s only 18 now. But the hype is right. Baseball’s latest phenom may be ahead of his own accelerated schedule.

“He’s a great player,” said Baltimore Orioles prospect Manny Machado, selected No. 3 overall – two spots behind Harper – in last year’s amateur draft. “Obviously, he’s been producing. If it’s up to me, he’s got the tools to be up there right now. It just depends on how he produces at Double-A. He could be up there this year.”

Publicly, of course, the Nationals aren’t saying that. They are handling him with care, limiting the media’s access to him during the minor league season. Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo has publicly ruled out the possibility of Harper playing in the big leagues this season – and told me in an email on Sunday that his position on that remains unchanged.

But Harper’s on-field progress has been quick, impressive and undeniable. He battered Class A pitching to the tune of a .977 OPS, before a recent promotion to the Harrisburg Senators of the Class AA Eastern League. Naturally, he’s hitting .357 over his first four games there.

Harper seems destined to arrive in the majors by next June – if not before. And there’s every reason to believe he will be an immediate star. Don’t be fooled by his forgettable performance on Sunday: 0-for-4 with two strikeouts.

When asked before Sunday’s game if he has accelerated the front office’s timetable for his arrival to the majors, Harper said, “I have no clue. I’m going to let them make their decisions. Mike Rizzo does a great job with everything and (player development director) Doug Harris also. They’re a really big help for me. I’m just going to go out and play my game like I know how to play and let them make their decisions.”

Harper is new to this pro baseball business – he signed his first contract less than a year ago – but he surely knows how this game works. At some point, talent trumps everything else. In an industry for which patience is becoming a lost virtue, how much longer can the Nationals reasonably be expected to restrain themselves?

It was pointed out to Harper that the star of last year’s Futures Game – Angels outfielder Mike Trout – is already in the big leagues, having received his first call-up several days ago. Trout is 19, the same age Harper will be at this time next year.

Did that make Harper wonder if his call-up could be coming, too?

“I didn’t even think about that,” Harper replied. “I’m just really happy for him.”

Harper isn’t a finished product, particularly on defense. He’s still adjusting to the outfield, which wasn’t his primary position in high school. Harper said he enjoys center field the most, but some scouts question whether he could handle that position in the majors, believing he’d be a better fit in right.

But when his bat is ready, the Nationals will find a place for him. It’s worth pointing out that they need to field a serious contender in 2012. Seven seasons into the return baseball to our nation’s capital, they rank third from the bottom among National League teams in average attendance – and have yet to finish above .500 over a full season. That’s not acceptable. The return of Stephen Strasburg from elbow surgery next year should help. The arrival of Harper would make an even bigger impact – at least at the turnstiles.

Harper, unlike Strasburg, won’t need four days of rest after he entertains a sellout crowd.

“It seems like he’s got a pretty good head on his shoulders,” said Team USA manager Mike Piazza, who, as a 62nd-round pick, had a slightly more obscure route to major league stardom. “He’s going to have a lot of pressure, but he’s got the physical ability. He just has to keep himself healthy and focused, take care of himself, and realize that there are a lot of ups and downs in the game. Unfortunately, he’s going to have a tremendous amount of pressure and hype, but if he just plays his game, he’ll be fine.”

Although Harper is the same age as your niece who just graduated from high school, there are already moments when he seems like a big leaguer. During batting practice on Sunday, he gestured his bat toward the outside corner more than once, suggesting to the pitcher that he wanted to work on some pitches away. When Team USA was introduced before the game, he was the only player whose name was met with scattered boos at Chase Field – a consequence, perhaps, of his $9.9 million contract and brash, bad-boy image. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that America saw replays of him blowing a petulant kiss to a Class-A pitcher.

Next year, Bryce Harper is going to get booed in a number of major league ballparks. And that shouldn’t be too surprising. It comes with being a superstar.