Top prospect Harper's time has almost arrived
Nats' 19-year-old phenom looking to break camp with club
VIERA, Fla. -- Bryce Harper's locker is next to that of Jason Michaels, and that's surely no accident. The Nationals are Michaels' fifth Major League team, and at 35, he arrived at Spring Training with a Minor League contract and no guarantees.
Mike Cameron's retirement may have opened up a roster spot, but Michaels is still going to have to prove he deserves it. He has been down this road a few times. In 11 seasons, Michaels has had more than 300 at-bats just once and frequently has been the guy fighting for one of the last roster spots.
Along the way, Michaels has developed the kind of reputation we'd all like to have. He's a relentless worker, good teammate and consummate professional. Michaels is also coming off a nightmarish season, one in which he hit .199 for a team that lost 106 games.
When the Astros began to rebuild last summer, Michaels saw his playing time dwindle to almost nothing. Still, he never complained.
"It begins with me," Michaels said. "I can't blame anyone else."
There are a long list of things 19-year-old Bryce Harper can learn from Michaels. As role models go, he could hardly have a better one, and Michaels suspects that's part of the reason they've got adjoining lockers.
Like a lot of us, Michaels is awed by Harper's talent. It would be incomprehensible to think a teenager who has played just 109 Minor League games could begin this season in the big leagues.
But Harper is unlike any other prospect in baseball. Long before he was the No. 1 overall pick of the 2010 First-Year Player Draft, he was dazzling scouts with his lightning-quick bat and array of physical gifts.
About the only question this spring is whether he'll be in the Nationals' Opening Day lineup or be given another month or so in the Minor Leagues. The Nats would delay his free agency a year by sending him to the Minors for a month, so there's a big-picture angle to consider.
Regardless of when it happens, this almost certainly will be the season when Harper makes his Major League debut. When that happens, he'll be the most watched player in the game, just as teammate Stephen Strasburg was two years ago.
After Wednesday morning's workout, Nationals manager Davey Johnson was getting a report on batting practice. As his coaches ran down a list of players, there was no mention of Harper.
"I didn't hear one word about Harper," Johnson said. "Was he there?"
There were mumbles.
"He's OK," one coach said.
"He's fine," another said.
"They don't want to make a comment on him," Johnson said. "They like him. They've read all the articles about how it's better for him to go down and go through the stages. They don't want to try and influence me in any manner."
Let's just say that Harper already looks like a Major Leaguer. He's 6-foot-3 and a very solid 225 pounds. He does not look 19 years old.
Harper said he got worn down last summer by the length of his first professional season and has rededicated himself to weight lifting and conditioning.
The Nats seem to have few concerns about how Harper will adjust to Major League pitching, but an equally large concern is helping him know what's expected in terms of temperament, behavior, etc.
"I told him I was a sophomore in college when I was his age," Michaels said. "I was a long, long way from being ready to play in the Major Leagues. He's obviously very special."
In his first professional season, Harper wasn't overwhelmed. He hit .318 in Class A ball and was hitting .256 at Double-A when he got hurt. Harper said there was a constant adjustment and readjustment with the way he was being pitched.
Harper's teammates look at him and see two things. First, they see the enormous skill set. Second, they see someone who will have a tough time ever meeting the expectations placed upon him.
"That's a tough place to be for anybody, let alone a 19-year-old kid," outfielder Jayson Werth said. "He'll have a good support staff if and when he gets here. We've got a bunch of good guys. Hopefully, we can guide him a little bit. So far, he's on the right track."
Harper shrugged off the questions about expectations. They're nothing new.
"I've had it on me my whole life," he said. "It's nothing different. I'm going to come in and try to show I can be up here and stay up here. You're facing the best guys in baseball at Double-A. I've struggled at every single level when I start. That's the thing that I do. Hopefully, I can get out of that funk and get going sooner."
Harper turned off a few people -- and that's putting it delicately -- with his behavior at times, blowing kisses to the opposing team after one home run and throwing some equipment after getting tossed from a game.
If another 19-year-old Minor Leaguer had done some of the same thing, there wouldn't have been a mention. For Harper, though, everything is news.
"He's been in the spotlight his whole life," Nationals right-hander Jordan Zimmermann said. "He's still in the spotlight. People are expecting a lot out of him, so we'll see what happens this spring."
Regardless of when Harper's big league career actually begins, it'll be one of the special days of the 2012 season, and the Nats hope there'll be many special ones after that.
"It would be a dream come true," Harper said. "The thing is, if I get up there, I want to stay there. I don't want to get up there and go back down."
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.