For a teenager yet to play a game, Harper has been seen
quite a lot since being signed last summer. He got to know the organization through instructional league play last fall, then held his own as a taxi squad member in the Arizona Fall League, playing twice a week and getting national TV time during the AFL championship game. He hit .343 with a .410 on-base percentage and .629 slugging percentage in 35 at-bats in Arizona.
Then there was big league Spring Training, where MLB.com's
No. 3 overall prospect got a good amount of playing time as well, hitting .389 over 18 at-bats before being reassigned.
So it's easy to understand why for those close to the
situation, Thursday's game almost seems anti-climactic.
"To a certain degree, yes, we feel we're already past that," farm director Doug Harris said. "He spent so much
time with us in instructional league, in the AFL, in Spring Training. We feel we're past Opening Day.
"He's done so well, but this is his first taste of
championship-season baseball. And I think there's a buildup for Opening Day no matter who you are. You spend so much
time in Spring Training, so we're excited as an organization to get going."
Harper will face a pretty good test right away. The Braves
will send 19-year-old lefty Carlos Perez, No. 7 on the
team's top-10 list, to the mound. Rome's roster also features organizational top-10 talent in catcher Christian
Bethancourt (No. 9) and shortstop Matt Lipka (No. 10).
"It's going to be a fun series to watch and a fun season to pay attention to," said Rome manager Matt Walbeck, the
former big league catcher who is new to the South Atlantic
Walbeck might be new to both the league and the Braves
organization, but he's no stranger to the hoopla of a debut like Harper's. Last year, Walbeck was at the helm of the
Altoona Curve, the Pirates' Double-A affiliate. Altoona
played host to the Harrisburg Senators, the Nationals' entry in the Eastern League, when a fellow named Stephen
Strasburg made his professional debut.
"It's crazy how things work," Walbeck laughed. "I think
having gone through the Strasburg opener, as a manager, you can convey to the players that it's really no different than any other game you've played. With any baseball player who plays professionally, once that first pitch is thrown, it becomes just another game."
Walbeck isn't the only one who will use the Strasburg
experience to help navigate through the heightened attention Harper brings to the ballpark. The Nationals feel much more equipped to deal with whatever comes their -- and Harper's -- way as he embarks on his climb to Washington.
"We were very fortunate to have experienced everything we
did in regards to Stephen's situation," Harris said. "We're much more prepared. We have a better understanding of what each day holds. There's still a lot of fluid situations, but there's a good support group in place and a lot of angles covered. We feel good about it."
Just how long Harper will stay with Hagerstown remains to be seen. He's been very forthright about wanting to force the organization's hand and move quickly to the big leagues.
The Nationals know that Harper needs to show the ability to be consistent as he plays every day for the first time. They want him to show that he can handle off-days
offensively, something he did in Minor League camp, and he
needs to refine his outfield play as he continues to make
the transition to full-time play. All of those things
will help determine when he will be ready to move.
The Nationals don't have a timeline in place, but they do
like how pushy Harper has been on the subject.
"[General manager Mike Rizzo] and I, we have not had one
conversation about it," Harris said. "It kind of shocks
people. We both agree this is an important time for him to
build a strong foundation, and we want the focus to be on
that, and nothing more than that.
"He is a very driven young man, as are many of our players. I love the fact they want the challenge of competing at
higher level. It doesn't matter what jersey [he's wearing], he's going to compete."
That's something everyone will get to see, officially, for
the first time on Thursday. And as much as the Nationals
might want to downplay this as just another game, there's no question that Rome will get a lot more attention.
"From a player-development standpoint, it's something you
definitely look forward to, to see someone of his caliber on the other side, to watch how he goes about his business," Walbeck said. "I've seen video of him on YouTube, I've read a lot about him. I'm looking forward to seeing a player of his caliber."