Monday, February 21, 2011

Harper circus shouldn't last long

Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Bryce Harper's presence towered over Nats camp today.
VIERA, Fla. -- As Bryce Harper shuttled from practice field to practice field late this morning, followed every step of the way by media and fans alike, you couldn't help but wonder if the circus is going to become a daily occurrence around Nationals camp.

The attention Harper received on his first day in camp was at least on par with what Stephen Strasburg got one year ago, perhaps even greater. Strasburg wasn't mobbed by dozens of autograph seekers last spring the way Harper was today (though perhaps in part because the attention-shy right-hander made more of an effort to avoid the crush, where the limelight-loving Harper was happy to join in).

These first few days of Harper's first spring training may continue to resemble the traveling circus. When he steps into the box tomorrow to face a real Nationals pitcher throwing live BP, the cameras will once again be rolling, and we'll all scribble down notes and post Twitter updates every time he makes (or doesn't make) contact.

And when Jim Riggleman summons Harper off the bench for the first time in a Grapefruit League game, the moment again will take on added significance as everyone in attendance pauses to watch the first at-bat of a potentially spectacular career.

But the hype will probably die down quickly, and the circus should dissipate in fairly short order, for one simple reason: Harper really isn't going to be doing much in this camp.

Sure, he's an 18-year-old playing alongside big-leaguers, some of them more than twice his age. (Matt Stairs, who turns 43 on Sunday, actually made his major-league debut with the Expos 4 1/2 months before Harper was born.) But he's mostly going to be a bystander during this camp.

If the Nationals had their druthers, Harper wouldn't even be in big-league camp before ever playing a game in the minors. But they had no choice but to invite him to compete with the big boys, because Harper signed a major-league contract last summer. That guaranteed him an invitation to big-league camp.

"He's on the 40-man roster," Riggleman said. "That's why he's here."

Team officials do want Harper to get a taste of life alongside major leaguers. They want him to see how true pros like Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth and others conduct themselves, how they make the most of their workout time, how they act in the clubhouse.

"We want him to be a sponge," GM Mike Rizzo said. "We want him to absorb what it takes to be a big-league player."

But look for Harper to do most of that absorbing from the dugout rail, not the batter's box. His appearance time in Grapefruit League games will be minimal, an occasional at-bat off the bench, a couple of innings in the field with other reserves.

And he almost certainly will be among the first players cut from camp in early-March and re-assigned to the minor-league facility down the road. That's where Harper's real education will begin, playing out of the spotlight alongside low-level prospects closer to his age.

There's a reason Rizzo intends to have Harper open the season at low-Class A Hagerstown. It's not so much because his talent level is on par with players in the South Atlantic League. (It's not, he's probably good enough already to play at Class AA.) It's because the club wants Harper to experience life in professional baseball like almost every other recent draftee does.

They want him riding the bus from Hagerstown to Savannah. They want him carrying his own bags. They want him to feel like he has to earn his way into the major leagues and back into the spotlight.

It's a bit of a different scenario than Strasburg faced one year ago. The right-hander started three Grapefruit League games, then went straight to Class AA Harrisburg to begin his career. Within two months, he was striking out 14 Pittsburgh Pirates on national TV.

Strasburg, of course, was reluctant with all that instant attention he received. He felt like he hadn't done enough to warrant it yet, even though his electric performances suggested he absolutely deserved it.

Harper, on the other hand, craves the spotlight. He probably would have gone on signing autographs for an hour this afternoon if team officials hadn't whisked him away from the pack. Later, he sat at his locker and surely noticed several reporters standing on the other side of the clubhouse, perhaps hoping we'd come over to interview him. The Nats, though, had made it clear Harper wouldn't be talking to anyone today, not until tomorrow's pre-planned press conference following the team's first official full-squad workout.

The Nationals have said they're going to make a concerted effort to limit Harper's exposure early on, which would align with their overall plan to ease him into pro baseball. That's limited exposure in the media and limited exposure on the field during spring training.

Oh, he'll still have reporters and fans following his every move for the next few weeks while he's in big-league camp.

But if you're hoping to catch a glimpse of The Next Big Thing in Nats Camp, you better come down soon. This circus will be folding up and leaving before many have a chance to witness it.

21 comments:

Sec 3, My Sofa said...

I'm not at all worried about this kid handling the circus. He clearly has a natural sense for branding himself. If he has somebody to keep him in line, he'll do fine.

Sec 3, My Sofa said...

And for the comparison, I got the definite impression that Strasburg didn't care for the attention, but he definitely thought/knew his talent was enough to make the team out of camp.

Sue Dinem said...

While I don't believe Harper will start in Hagerstown (as I put in post today guessing which position players will be assigned there), I can see a way in which Harper can be kept away from DC until May 2 by starting him with the Suns, promoting him to Potomac on April 14 to join them for two-plus week road trip, then up to Harrisburg to join them on a away series in Bowie.

Doc said...

You're right Mark. Harper's talent is probably more AA as of this date, and that should be obvious to most baseball authorities.

Bryce also want's to be a big leaguer, and he would like to talk to the world about it--nothing wrong with either. It'll be fun watching him work the press in the future.

Unlike many prospects, Bryce has dreamed and worked towards his goal of having a big-league career most of his 18 years. And as far as he is concerned, the sooner it happens, the better.

Its OK for the Nats to have him start on the lowest rung of the minor league ladder, but a lot of that is a stubborn tradition of following a sequence meant for lesser talented players, not a reflection of Bryce Harper's skills.

He'd like to be a September '11 call-up, and when the time comes, I'll bet he'll deserves it.

I hope he gets to play a lot of CF in the minors, because he's got the wheels and the arm to do it.

Anonymous said...

While I don't believe Harper will start in Hagerstown (as I put in post today guessing which position players will be assigned there), I can see a way in which Harper can be kept away from DC until May 2 by starting him with the Suns, promoting him to Potomac on April 14 to join them for two-plus week road trip, then up to Harrisburg to join them on a away series in Bowie.

Or they could start him AA and send him up to the shores of Gitchegoomie where like the legendary Hiawatha he would learn the serenity of thunderstorms on every home game day and might learn a trick or two from Knorr, Stairs (he really belongs there) and former top prospect Corey Brown.

Les in NC said...

Mark, I get a sense that you dislike Harper by reading this post. How about the rest of the clubhouse? Is he an outcast before workouts even truly start? The statement about how the club wants BH to carry his own bag suggests that he is an incredible clubhouse diva as soon as he stepped through the door. Everything I have read so far has led me to believe that Harper is as humble a player as the next guy when it comes to "knowing his place", he may just enjoy talking to the world whereas SS did not. Is that a condemning character flaw?

Mark Zuckerman said...

Les: I don't dislike Harper at all. I've only seen/dealt with him in person a couple of times now, but I'm all for any player who's comfortable dealing with media and has interesting things to say. If it was entirely up to me (for purely selfish reasons) I'd have him playing every day this spring and making tons of headlines!

So I certainly didn't mean to convey a personal dislike for Bryce at all in my post. I do think that some of the Nats decision-makers would prefer he not be in big-league camp at 18 and not be drawing this kind of attention, which is why they're probably going to send him down at the earliest possible date. That I was trying to convey.

Anonymous said...

And if he's ready for AA then it wouldn't be long before he was ready for AAA and Syracuse is nicely hidden between mountain and Finger lake ... and probably far enough from DC and small enough to impart a good measure of humility. Just sayin' ...

Anonymous said...

The thing is, even if Harper is carrying his own bags etc., he isn't a typical minor leaguer. He has a Major League contract and that bonus, so the idea that he's just one of the guys doesn't really hold water. It also seems to me that Major League Baseball has a way of humbling athletes anyway. The free agency rules had as much to do with keeping Strassburg in the minors as anything else, the Nats' brass comments notwithstanding.

Anonymous said...

Looking at the suns schedule, there won't be any bus rides to Savannah for him. Thats my loss as I live less than an hour from Grayson Stadium in Savannah, darn it!! JTinSC

Anonymous said...

No Sand Gnats but perhaps the Gwinett Braves might be in the cards?

Anonymous said...

I don't think an 18 year old belongs on a major league field for a while, no matter how gifted, or even AAA. There' s more going on to growing a mature ballplayer -- and human being -- than extraordinary physical talents for the game. Let the kid spend 2011 with kids closer to his own age and get some life-seasoning as well as professional baseball experience before putting him on a jet-pack trip to the Show.

Anonymous said...

The history of the Majors is full of 18- and 19-year-olds who got their first shot at that age and quickly made an impact, and many of them were among the great ones. I dearly hope it's true of Harper.

Kevin Rusch, Section406 said...

I understand maturity and avoiding the rush to call the guy up. _BUT_ if he can help the club win games more than whoever is there now, there's _no_ sense whatsoever in leaving him (or anyone for that matter) in the minors.

See also Short, Rick. He was hitting the cover off the ball in AAA in 2005 (and as you'll recall, the Nats were throwing Preston Wilson out there at 2b for a time), but since he was "no longer a prospect", he only got called up at the very end. (When he still hit .400.)

Big Cat said...

Foohey on all this nonsense about carrying his own bags etc. If the kid hits well in spring and outplays the other outfielders......namely Morgan...keep him in the big leagues. I still can't believe we are considering Morgan in a starting role

Theophilus said...

The kid's still got to learn how to play the outfield, how to hit a big league fastball and slider, how to wait for a pitch that's in the strike zone and not just "in the neighborhood." At the minor league level, the only pressure on him will be to conform and get along. The pressure to perform at the major league level in front of 40,000 JayB's, who'll critique his angle to every fly ball and howl like banshees when he gets picked off first, is an entirely different thing. Issues about his ego and professionalism (or more correctly the lack thereof) are completely beside the point right now. Let him be successful before you trot him out against Roy Halladay or Tim Lincecum.

NatinBeantown said...

Harper must go to Hagerstown to learn invaluable lessons like:

You'll never make it to the bigs with fungus on your shower shoes. Think classy, you'll be classy. If you [hit 40] in the show, you can let the fungus grow back and the press'll think you're colorful. Until you [hit 40] in the show, however, it means you are a slob.

NatinBeantown said...

There are examples across the spectrum of success for early callups. Supporters see Ted Williams--once in a generation talents that shouldn't be held to the routines of lesser players. Detractors see the dozens of guys that flamed out early due to an enflamed sense of entitlement from early riches and kid-glove treatment.

Everything I've read about young Mr. Harper tells me he's got the ego to handle early promotion and the support and background to overcome early struggles. Simply, this kid was born to play on the biggest stage.

N. Cognito said...

Not taking into account the "starting of the clock" concerns, Harper will be in DC when he should be.

raymitten said...

I find it most interesting that club officials wouldn't let Harper sign autographs for an extended period of time. I asked Strasburg for an autograph multiple times last spring, in a variety of situations, and his answer was always "I can't". I found him to be much more accomodating once he got called up permanently in June. After reading some of the Harper accounts this spring, I wonder if club officials are telling players (at least some of them) when and if they can sign autographs for fans. This is quite curious considsering player accesibility is one marketing tool for spring training.

Harper_ROY_2012 said...

@raymitten

Ray, you and I both know that the Nats, probably starting today (and Mark can correct me if I am wrong) will start restricting Harper's access to people including journalists, fans and autograph seekers alike. I think he will get the Zim treatment, which means he will be shipping to and from practice on a golf cart!

I 100% agree with you, more access at Spring Training and Fanfest is needed not less!!!!

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