Associated Press photo
Bryce Harper takes batting practice during today's workout.
Eckstein was stunned Harper already had an intimate understanding of a pitcher he's never faced before.
"He's like: 'This is what he's going to do. And when he does it, this is where it's gonna go,'" the Nationals hitting coach said.
Eckstein could only laugh and respond to his young protege: "I think you're right."
How unusual is it for a 19-year-old with zero major-league experience to have that kind of advanced approach to his craft? Plenty. But as he spends more and more time in big-league camp and shares more and more of his knowledge with coaches and teammates, it becomes more and more obvious that Harper is no usual 19-year-old.
"He's awesome," Eckstein said. "He really is. That's all his credit. He's very mature and very in tune with everything and every aspect of his game. That's pretty impressive for a 19-year-old."
Whether he makes the Nationals' Opening Day roster or not -- and there's still more reason to believe he won't than he will -- Harper has quickly made an impression on the club's coaching staff this spring.
Following an early position player workout last week that Davey Johnson didn't attend, the manager asked a couple of coaches who were there for reports on various players. They ran through everyone in attendance ... well, except for one guy.
"They were talking Rendon, LaRoche, Lombardozzi, Espi, damn near everybody over there," Johnson recalled. "I asked them, I said: 'I didn't hear one word about Harper? Is he there?' They said: 'He's okay, he's fine.' They don't want to make a comment. Because they like him. They don't want to try to influence me in any manner."
One reason the staff likes Harper so much is because he combines his natural ability with a studious and inquisitive nature that makes him easily coachable.
"He's a student," Eckstein said. "He's worked at his craft. And he's challenged himself as hard as you can challenge yourself to go."
Harper is far from a finished product. He still has much to learn and needs experience against more big-league pitchers, especially left-handers, to better understand what he'll be up against at this level.
For that reason, the coaching staff plans to give him plenty of playing time early this month. Harper is slated to be in the Nationals' starting lineup and batting third for tomorrow's charity game against Georgetown, then in the lineup again Saturday for their Grapefruit League opener against the Astros.
"As we get into games, we watch that and evaluate what adjustments he's making and what we need to talk about, and take it from there," Eckstein said. "He's always shown the ability to make the adjustment against the competition that he's facing. So take it one step at a time. It's the one thing I think he's done his entire career: Face competition that's so-called 'older' than him and make the necessary adjustment to compete at the highest level."
One aspect of Harper's swing doesn't need much refinement at all: His ability to hit for power. During today's batting practice session, he crushed several balls to the opposite field, including one laser of a home run that struck a light standard beyond the left-center field fence.
How does he generate so much power?
"He just -- for lack of a better term -- his entire body's in sync," Eckstein said. "Everything's in sync. He utilizes every ounce of his ability, and it's in sync and all comes together right at impact. It's pretty unique how he utilizes his entire body, his legs and everything. I mean, it's pretty impressive."
Impressive. It's a word that seems to be used more and more each day to describe the Nationals' 19-year-old star-in-waiting.