Commentary

Bryce Harper focused … and learning

Nats' 19-year-old phenom will start year at Triple-A, but stardom could soon follow

Originally Published: March 19, 2012
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

VIERA, Fla. -- He's the world's most famous member of the Syracuse Chiefs now. And really, friends, that shouldn't be a shock to anybody -- not even to Bryce Harper.

He's still a mesmerizing attraction. He's still a dynamic talent. He's still baseball's most intriguing teenage mutant ninja prospect.

[+] EnlargeBryce Harper
Brad Barr/US PresswireBryce Harper batted .286 with two doubles (28 at-bats) in nine big league games this spring.

But can we introduce some facts here?

Bryce Harper is 19 years old. Nineteen. He's younger than the Jonas Brothers. Younger than David Archuleta. Younger than Austin Rivers. He's 19.

Not to mention this guy has played exactly 37 minor league games above the South Atlantic League. Yep, 37. And in those 37 games in Double-A, he hit .256/.329/.395. Want to read those numbers again? You should. He slugged under .400 in Double-A. Not .500 -- .400.

So while it made for a fun story -- the idea that this charismatic American phenom just might begin the year in the big leagues as the starting center fielder for those onrushing Washington Nationals -- there was always very little chance that was actually going to happen. Always.

"I've said all along that my development plan is, I like players to touch each level in the minor leagues," said Nationals GM Mike Rizzo the other day, when he was still mulling the decision he announced Sunday -- that Harper was heading for Triple-A. "That way, it gives them experience at each level in the minor leagues. And it's part of the process that makes you a big leaguer."

So from the beginning, Rizzo's stance was clear: It was "going to take something special" for Bryce Harper to make the team out of spring training. And if there was even any question, the GM said, the plan all along was to "err on that side" and send him to the minor leagues.

Well they've made the right call, said one scout who covers the Nationals' system -- except for one thing:

They should have sent him to Double-A, not Triple-A.

"He hit .250 in [129] at-bats last year in Double-A," the scout said. "And I don't think there's anything wrong with sending him back to a level he hasn't conquered yet.

"He's 19 years old, and he has things to learn. He has things to learn about baserunning. He has things to learn about playing defense. He has things to learn about commanding the strike zone. That's no knock on the kid. He's 19 years old, and he's way ahead of where he should be. But he hit .250 in Double-A. So send him back to DoubleA, let him tear up the Eastern League and then send him to Syracuse."

Harper started out this spring by going 5 for his first 11, and half the planet had his ticket to D.C. already punched. But then he tweaked a calf muscle and couldn't play for the next six days. He didn't return until last Wednesday, and the next five games weren't pretty. He went 3-for-17 in those five games, with nine strikeouts. After he punched out four at-bats in a row on Sunday, the Nationals knew what they had to do.

"To be honest with you," said the same scout, "if they sent him to Double-A, I actually think he'd be challenged there. Triple-A is filled with guys who have been in the big leagues and know how to pitch. … So at this stage, it's not a slam dunk he'll go to Triple-A and tear it up. It'll be interesting to see how he does."

Then again, everything about Bryce Harper seems to be a topic of massive nationwide interest these days. And that in itself is a fascinating phenomenon.

This spring training, for instance, unless you were poring through the Washington Post every morning, you'd have sworn Harper was the ONLY story in the Nationals' camp.

We could have sworn this team just added Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson over the winter. And signed Ryan Zimmerman to a $100 million extension. And still employed some guy named Stephen Strasburg. Pretty good stories in their own right, you'd think.

But without fail, every major media entity that passed through this camp pointed its cameras and its notebooks in the direction of … ummm … guess who?

It got to the point even Harper was getting a little uncomfortable with it.

"I really don't understand it," Harper said last week. "We've got guys like Gio and Edwin. We've got [Jayson] Werth and [Rick] Ankiel and [Michael] Morse and Zim. Our whole frigging 1-through-9 [in the lineup] and 1-through-5 pitching is unbelievable. I think the story should be on this whole team … not just me. I'm not the whole team.

"It would get to the point where I'd go 0-for-4, and Werth goes 2-for-4 with a [homer] and a double, so why do they want to talk to me? … I don't get it sometimes. I mean, what am I supposed to say: 'I struck out twice tonight? Sorry?'"

He's absolutely right, of course. In some ways. There are many tales that deserve to be told in his clubhouse. Except it's not the media's obligation to spit out all those tales, just the ones people care about most. And if EVERYBODY keeps zoning in on the same storyline, on one guy, that's obviously telling us something about that guy.

In this case, it's telling us Bryce Harper is already a special, magnetic force in his sport. And even the veteran players around him have come to grips with that.

"If that's THE story, that's not his fault, obviously," said Zimmerman. "It is what the sports world is now. I think everyone gets bored with, like, the 23-year-old guys who went to college and played in the minors for two years and then come up and are good players. They want to see a young kid like him. That's just what America likes."

But it isn't always what veteran players in That Kid's clubhouse like. Needless to say, the veterans in Harper's locker room have been paying close attention to every word out of his mouth, every photo that hits the Internet and every move he's made, on and off the field.

"Bryce, from last year to this year, is night-and-day in terms of how he's learned to handle that kind of stuff," Zimmerman said.

"He's been doing all the right things and saying all the right things," said Werth. "And when he doesn't, he hears about it. So I think he's learning -- at a fast rate."

And if Bryce Harper sometimes wasn't learning fast enough? Hey, fortunately for him, he has had many veteran educators around him this spring who never hesitated to go that extra mile to enhance his all-important learning process.

Next to his big league locker stall, for instance, you could find the nameplate, "WERTH 28." And inside that locker hung one of Werth's very own jerseys. It would almost lead you to believe Werth had moved his locker right next to Harper's, just for the sake of, well, mentorship.

Except that Werth's actual locker was still 75 feet away, in the other corner of the room, right where it's always been.

So what was the deal with that other locker? Simple. Bryce Harper's teammates noticed that, for some reason, he'd been given a double locker before he'd "earned" that right.

The solution? Werth slid the nameplate off his own locker, slid it in above Harper's "second" locker and told him: "Keep your stuff out of my locker." Which Harper then obediently did, of course.

"When I was 19 and I was in big league camp with the Orioles," Werth said, "I had guys like Cal Ripken, B.J. Surhoff, Brady Anderson, Mike Bordick around me. Those guys were old enough to be my dad. And they wouldn't let you slide on anything. Especially me. But I didn't have the clout Bryce has. I was a little less known, I would say. So I learned the hard way."

And this spring, it was Harper's turn to learn -- in whatever way his older, wiser teammates felt was appropriate.

So one day last week, Zimmerman stopped for lunch after a workout for players who weren't going on the team's trip to a night game at Disney, looked up and saw Harper -- who WAS going on that trip -- walk in the door.

"Hey Bryce, what are you doing?" Zimmerman asked. "Don't you know the bus leaves in 30 minutes?"

"I know," Harper answered, with the look of a guy who'd been caught in an act not of his own choosing. "I was at the field, but I had to come get lunch for like five guys."

This, ladies and gentlemen, was higher education, big league style, at its finest.

"Before, he might have been like, 'Screw you guys,'" Zimmerman said. "I mean, he wouldn't say that, but you could tell that's what he was thinking. But now he's like, 'Hey, what do you guys want?' He understands now that everyone goes through it and it's just going to happen. Everyone in here has gone through it and it's part of it. But like I always tell people, there are worse places to get picked on than a big league clubhouse."

One thing Harper learned was that the best way to avoid getting picked on was to blend in as much as humanly possible. So he lowered the volume, dialed down the styling and even shut down his Twitter account this spring.

I want to make that impact right when I get there. I don't want to go to D.C. and struggle and have them say, 'We're going to send you back down.' I want to get up there and stick and not go from Triple-A to the big leagues and the big leagues to Triple-A and so on.

-- Bryce Harper

"He's still a little cocky," Zimmerman said, "just like I think anyone would be at that age if they were that good. But he's learning, because I think he realizes that's just part of the total package now. You can only get so far with talent. You can be the best player in the game, but you don't want everyone to hate you. You want to be liked by your fan base. And you want to be liked by your teammates -- which he is."

So not all of Bryce Harper's experience this spring came ON the field. But now that he's moved down the road to the minor league camp, he can turn his focus to what's really important -- his quest to get to the big leagues and never look back.

"I want to make that impact right when I get there," Harper said. "I don't want to go to D.C. and struggle and have them say, 'We're going to send you back down.' I want to get up there and stick and not go from Triple-A to the big leagues and the big leagues to Triple-A and so on. I want to go up there and be a game-changer. And if that means the middle of the year or next year or the next or the next, I just want to get up there no matter what."

Until he does, that spotlight won't stop radiating, though. Just as the cameras seemed to find Stephen Strasburg in Harrisburg, Syracuse and minor league outposts on the East Coast, those cameras will know exactly where to locate Bryce Harper too. And we have a sneaking feeling he'll know they're there.

"We're prepared for it," said Rizzo, "because we've been through it already with Strasburg. But it was defused a little bit by Stras' [low-key] personality. But with Bryce, we have the big expectations and the big media every time he makes a move, and the spotlight is always on him. And he embraces that. He likes it. He's a very confident, swagger type of guy. So he kind of feeds it."

He always has. But this time around, he'll at least have the benefit of all his, ahem, educational experiences in that big league clubhouse this spring to draw from. So if you detect a little less noise off the field but lots of noise on it, that'll be just fine with the team Bryce Harper can't wait to join. And up in the big leagues, his teammates will be watching -- all of it.

"He's starting to figure it out," said Ryan Zimmerman. "And once he does? Whoa. It'll be kinda scary."

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com