After a year-plus of watching Washington Nationals' outfielder Bryce Harper up close, former major league slugger-turned-manager Matt Williams told a Nevada-based reporter this winter that he thought the 22-year-old, 2010 no.1 overall pick was "... well on his way to a Hall of Fame career."
Through three major league seasons, and coming off a .273/.344/.423, 10 double, 13 HR, +1.3 fWAR campaign in which he missed significant time after surgery to repair a tear of the ulnar collateral ligament in his left thumb, Harper has put up a combined .272/.351/.465 line with 60 doubles and 55 HRs in 1,489 plate appearances so far in his career, over which he's been worth +9.5 fWAR.
In his second postseason appearance in three years last October, Harper went 5 for 13 with a double and three home runs in the Nationals' NLDS loss to the San Francisco Giants, ending the year on a personal high note after working his way back.
Williams was asked today if he spoke to Harper when the Nats' right fielder reported to Viera, Florida for the start of Spring Training. Williams said he had, and talked at length with reporters about what he expects from Harper in 2015.
"Just take the next steps," Williams said. "He's on the path to a wonderful career. We all know that. And just to take the next steps. He had a fantastic postseason. I think that really gets some confidence going in him. I think he looks great. Reporting today, he looked in great shape. Certainly his swing is there. I threw him batting practice today and we almost had to get another bucket of balls."
Williams said Harper's healthy this Spring and ready to get going on his fourth season.
"Last year coming in he had a little bit of a barky knee, post-surgery," Williams said. "He doesn't have those issues this year. So, he's full and ready and itching to play. He's looking forward to tomorrow like we all are."
Tomorrow will be the first full-squad workouts, but Williams got a look at the shape Harper was in when position players checked in today.
"He's lean," Williams told reporters. "He's really lean. He's in fantastic shape. So I think he's ready to go. I know he's motivated, as well all are. I got a chance to speak to him a few times this winter. He's ready to go, glad to be here."
So what will Harper "taking the next step" look like?
"He's changing positions," Williams said. "So that's first and foremost a challenge because it's on the other side of the diamond. He's played there before, but he doesn't have a lot of reps there. So that's part of the process in Spring.
"I think that offensively, he's poised to take all the next appropriate steps that he needs to take. So he'll get better in all aspects of his offense. That comes with experience. Knowing the league. Knowing himself better. All of those things. And then beyond that, in the clubhouse, he can become certainly more of a leader and help our team along the way. So all of those things combined, he'll take those appropriate steps this year and have a great year for us."
Harper too is apparently expecting big things from the Nationals this year, especially after they bolstered an already-strong rotation with the addition of former Cy Young Award-winning starter Max Scherzer.
Harper's reaction to the news of the signing?
"To be able to have a guy like Scherzer come in? I just started laughing. I was like, 'Where is my ring?' Because it's absolutely stupid how good our staff is. I mean, to add a Cy Young, to add a guy that is unbelieveable in the postseason, if you have to go into a five-game set in the postseason, looking ahead, like I told you I wouldn't, you have to go into a five-game set against a team, you're going to have to face [Jordan] Zimmermann, [Doug] Fister, Scherzer and [Stephen Strasburg]. Good luck."
If the Nationals' hitters are able to stay healthy this season, they're going to be a tough lineup for opposing pitchers to get through as well.
Though he hit sixth most of the time last year, Williams said Harper is going to move to the middle of the order this season, especially since he's one of only two (along with Denard Span) left-handed bats in the starting lineup.
"It certainly breaks the lineup up," Williams said of having Harper in the middle.
"It allows us to do some of that. I just want him to be Bryce and not throw expectation on him in that, 'Well, you need to hit 3-4.' I just want him to play, because when he does that and when he frees his mind up in that regard, he's really, really good.
"We'll make the lineup as we get further down the road, but yeah, it's safe to say that he would most likely hit somewhere in the middle of our lineup, yeah."
Before Harper's comments on Scherzer signing blew up on the internet, Williams was asked about watching the young star in the spotlight.
"I see him on a different basis than everybody else sees him," Williams said. "That spotlight is really bright. We all know that. The expectations are high, as they are for all of our team. I see the guy that is the first one to the ballpark. And works really hard and wants to be good. Has desire to become a great player, and he's willing to work at it. Which is great. So all of those things combined will allow him to be as good as he wants to be.
"He doesn't slack off in that regard. He works. And has great desire to become a great player in this game and I think he will be."
What's most important to Harper, however, is bringing a World Series championship to the nation's capital as he told reporters in less headline-grabbing comments today:
"I absolutely love this organization. I love the city that I play for. And I’m not done here. Like I said five years ago when I first signed here, I’m going to bring back a title to D.C., no matter what. I’m getting chills thinking about it. I absolutely want to do that for this organization, this town. I don’t care how long it takes me, I’m going to stick and do what I need to do to help this organization win."