Pressed into providing a date at which Washington Nationals fans might expect to see 2010 no.1 overall pick Bryce Harper make his MLB debut, D.C. GM Mike Rizzo told MLB Network Radio hosts Jim Bowden and Casey Stern in a March 2011 interview that it would depend solely on the speed of the catcher-turned-outfielder's development. "Like any gifted young player, we're going to allow him to develop at his own pace," Rizzo said, "we're not going to retard his progress, but we're certainly not going to accelerate it past where we think he belongs. You know, he's a fast-track, 18-year-old player, I really can't be any more specific than that. Justin Upton was a guy that I had personal experience with, in how he developed, and 'gun to my head' if you ask me where [Harper] would be, I think he would be on that course to be, you know, maybe a 19-or-20-year-old big leaguer and maybe a 20-year-old All-Star like Upton was."
The Las Vegas-born, left-handed hitting power bat finished his first professional season with a combined .297/.392/.501 line, 24 doubles and 17 HR's in 109 games and 452 plate appearances. A hamstring injury ended Harper's year abruptly last August, but the 19-year-old outfielder recovered and traveled to the Arizona Fall League for the second time this past October/November, where he had a .333/.400/.634 slash with six doubles and six home runs in 25 games and 93 at bats.
Asked about Harper in an interview with 106.7 The FAN in D.C.'s Mike Wise and Holden Kushner, Nats' skipper Davey Johnson said that he knew the young slugger would finish up strong in the AFL, "And I know he's going to come to Spring Training and he's going to want to show us he's the best outfielder we've got." As for whether or not Harper has a legitimate shot at making the Opening Day roster, Johnson said, "I'm going to go north with the best group of guys I can lay my hands on. I'm going to keep an open mind. The fact is I've said that one other time to a general manager, I already said that to Rizzo, about a guy named Dwight Gooden, I said, 'Just keep an open mind going into Spring.'"
Johnson once again compared Harper and Gooden in an article published this morning by ESPN.com's Buster Olney entitled, "Bryce Harper's expert witness", in which the Nationals' manager recounts the story of how he met with the Nats' top prospect's parents last Spring and told them he predicted that Harper, "... would get at-bats in the big leagues when he was 19 years old." Johnson points in the article to Harper's knowledge of the strike zone (with Mr. Olney pointing to Harper's 59 walks in 109 games last year and .400 AFL OBP) comparing Harper's discipline to Gooden's control as a reason why the preternaturally-gifted hitter could adapt quickly to major league pitching even at this young age.
Harper, as the ESPN.com writer and the Nats' bench general note, also provides a left-handed bat in a right-hand heavy lineup. "'Johnson, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo and others will watch Harper in spring training this year,'" Mr. Olney wrote this morning, "'and decide whether to have him open the year in the big leagues,'" and as he points out, Harper's got a cheerleader pulling for him to force the Nats' hand. "'I would love to see someone who could sting the ball from the left side make my ballclub,'" the 68-year-old Johnson's quoted stating, "'That's what spring training is all about.'"
You can't avoid, however, acknowledging as NatsInsider.com's Mark Zuckerman explained in a post that covered the possibilites of future free agency and Super Two status, that contract considerations could play a part in the Nationals' decision-making process this spring. Davey Johnson told Washington Post writer Thomas Boswell at this past December's Winter Meetings that those considerations weren't his concern. "'I never get involved with contracts," Johnson told the WaPost reporter, "'That’s their decision. I make my recommendation on what makes the best ball club. But you can shoot yourself in the foot making decisions just for contract reasons.'"
The Nationals have outfielders Corey Brown, Mike Cameron, Brett Carroll, Jason Michaels and Xavier Paul coming to Spring Training, they have Roger Bernadina, Michael Morse, Jayson Werth and Eury Perez on the 40-Man roster, they've talked all winter about being comfortable going with Jayson Werth in center if they have to or alternately signing a center fielder/leadoff man, but D.C. GM Mike Rizzo's acknowledged that the market for that type of player looks better next year. Can Bryce Harper's talent and Davey Johnson's eagerness to see what the phenom can do in the Nats' outfield and batting order win out and result in Bryce Harper starting the season in the majors?