"'There's always that thought in my head. Everybody is competing for a job here. I felt like I was included, but you know, it's all good. I'm going to go down... and learn what I need to learn and be ready to be called up, hopefully soon.'"
That isn't a quote from the 18-year-old, 2010 no.1 overall pick, Bryce Harper, who yesterday was optioned to Class-A Hagerstown after a little longer than expected in his first major league camp. It isn't the confident Harper, who, in his first proper press conference this Spring wondered aloud, "'Why can't it be realistic? Why can't I come in here and think that I can make this team? I've exceeded expectations my whole life,'" as he was recorded asking in Washington Post writer Thomas Boswell's February 23, 2011 article entitled, "With Nationals rookie Bryce Harper, timing is everything."
It's a then-21-year-old Stephen Strasburg speaking in March of 2010 in the opening quote about going to Double-A Harrisburg to start his pro career (with the city name removed for dramatic effect). It was the Nats' no.1 overall pick in 2009 talking to Mr. Boswell's colleague at the Washington Post, Adam Kilgore, in a Nationals Journal post entitled, "Stephen Strasburg, Drew Storen to start in Class AA Harrisburg." Strasburg had to be aware of the fact that he wasn't likely to escape the minor league experience completely, but when he was pretty clearly one of the, if not the most talented pitchers in camp with the Nats last year, maybe the thought that he might actually be able to make it entered his mind...
A well-documented late-bloomer who'd blossomed as a pitcher under the guidance of San Diego State Baseball coach Tony Gwynn and his staff, Strasburg entered the Nats' organization as perhaps the most highly-regarded pitching prospect in the last decade of the First-Year Player Draft if not the draft's history, but he had asked his Hall of Fame coach before leaving for his own first Spring Training, "What do you do when you want to make a club but you're not sure if they're gonna let you?'" as Mr. Gwynn recounted in an interview on MLB Network Radio in March of '09.
Strasburg, the Washington Post's Mr. Kilgore reported, upon being informed that he'd been optioned to Double-A Harrisburg, told reporters that he understood, "'It's a business. That's all I got to say. It's not the perfect situation. But it's their decision.'" Harper, according to MLB.com's Bill Ladson in his article on Harper being optioned yesterday entitled, "After win, Nats option Harper to Class A", was aware that, "...he wasn't going to be on Washington's Opening Day roster out of Spring Training," as Mr. Ladson wrote, but, "Harper, 18, took the news hard, according to two baseball sources."
After hitting in 7 of 18 at bats against a few name pitchers and a lot of minor leaguers, collecting three doubles, two of them in one inning, and five RBI's, Harper, according to Mr. Ladson, tried to "explain to manager Jim Riggleman and general manager Mike Rizzo that he would be better off staying in big league camp," working with the big league staff, but later told reporters that he understood the decision and was resigned to the process:
"'Nobody likes to leave the big league club. This is the life that you want to live every day. It's just the process. I'll just go down to the Minor League club. I'm going to bust my butt. I'm going to play hard, like I always do.'"
When D.C. GM Mike Rizzo was asked about Harper's comments at the beginning of camp during a recent MLB Network Radio interview, and what he thought about the 18-year-old phenom thinking he actually had a shot at the Opening Day roster, the Nats' general manager said "I'd be shocked if he said something other than that." After telling Harper he'd been optioned to Class-A Hagerstown yesterday, Mr. Rizzo once again reiterated his belief that Harper needs to experience the "everyday-ness" of the Minors, as he told reporters including Washington Post writer Adam Kilgore as recorded in a Nationals Journal post entitled, "Bryce Harper optioned to Class A Hagerstown, could play for the Nationals this year." Asked if he would rule out the possibility of Harper appearing in a Nationals uniform again this season, Mr. Rizzo would only say that, "'I'm not going to rule anything out,'":
"'He needs to have plenty of minor league at-bats to prepare himself to not only get to the major leagues, but stay in the major leagues and excel.'"
After entering Junior college a year early and posting a ridiculous .443 AVG (101-for-228) with 23 doubles, four triples, 31 home runs, 98 RBI's, 39 walks and 20 stolen bases in 66 games played for the College of Southern Nevada, Harper first went to the Florida Instructional League where he hit .319 (15-for-47) with four doubles, a triple, four homers, 12 RBI's and seven walks to lead Washington's Instructional League roster in HR's, RBI's, walks, OBP (.407) and SLG (.702). Harper was then sent to the Arizona Fall League last November where he hit .343/.410/.629 with three doubles, two triples and a HR in 9 games and 35 at bats playing twice a week as part of the Scottsdale Scorpions' taxi squad.
After nine games with the Nats this Spring, Harper can now add to his resume a .389/.450/.556 slash line, three doubles and five RBI's late in games against mostly minor league pitching that might not have been better than the sort of higher-end pitching he saw in the AFL. Soon enough, if his career trajectory continues as it has he'll put up big numbers at low and then high Class-A, Double-AA and once he's "mastered" those levels, Triple-A and the majors. Stephen Strasburg piled up equally impressive numbers in the year leading up to his selection with the first pick of the '09 Draft.
In his junior year at San Diego State University, a then-21-year-old Strasburg was (13-1) with a 1.32 ERA in 15 starts and 109.0 IP in which he K'd 195 (16.1 K/9) and walked just 19 (1.5 BB/9) as an Aztec in 2009, then he was (4-1) in five starts and 19.0 IP in the Arizona Fall League in which he allowed 15 hits, 10 runs, nine earned, three HR's and seven walks while recording 23 K's. In 9.0 Spring Training innings pitched in 2010, Strasburg allowed eight hits, two runs, two earned, two HR's and a walk while throwing 149 pitches, 97 of them strikes, and recording 12 K's.
The Washington Post's Dave Sheinin wrote about the "two prodigies and once-in-a-generation" talents the Nats drafted with picks earned in 102 and 103-loss seasons in 2008 and 2009 at the end of his Washington Post Magazine profile of Harper, noting that, "the similarities between Harper and Strasburg end with their historic talent-levels, their groundbreaking contracts." Strasburg's shy and reserved, Harper embraces the attention, as preternaturally prepared in front of the camera or mic as he appears to be at the plate.
Which personality plays better in the nation's capital? Ryan Zimmerman, the Nats' 1st Round pick and their third baseman through 2013 and Strasburg remind one of the quiet, humble stars Washington's baseball loving public has embraced in the past, with Strasburg the Walter "Big Train" Johnson of his age and Zimmerman another quiet star like Frank Howard, men of few words, with prodigious talents. Harper? He might not fit that mold, having modeled himself and his game on a catcher-running, hard-sliding, currently-banned-from-baseball star he's mentioned often in the past, but this is the same Washington fan base that once worshipped the stately defenseman Rod Langway and has now embraced Alex Ovechkin's as its most-beloved star.
As the Washington Post's Mr. Sheinin put it in the title of his article, "For the love of Bryce Harper: Get ready, Washington. You're about to fall head over heels for the Nationals' newest star." Harper, Strasburg and Zimmerman. The nation's capital is ready to embrace a winner, and as a result of luck, Harper's ambition to get himself drafted no.1 overall, Strasburg's hard work to get to the majors and now to get back and Zimmerman's commitment to building a winner in Washington, D.C., in the next few years three-once-in-a-generation talents, if all goes as planned, are going to work together to once again try to do something a Washington-based team only did once in the last century.