MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Harper experience will be worth the wait

Harper experience will be worth the wait

Harper experience will be worth the wait
It's not that Bryce Harper was overmatched. In fact, that's the part of this story that should thrill the Washington Nationals.

For a 19-year-old kid with 109 professional games under his belt, Harper did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm about his skills. He showed up at Spring Training having played just 37 games at Double-A, none at Triple-A.

To think he was going to play his way onto the Opening Day Major League roster was to be optimistic beyond reason. Still, in 28 spring at-bats, he batted .286 with no home runs, two walks and 11 strikeouts.

One of the ongoing spring debates among scouts is whether Harper or Angels outfielder Mike Trout is baseball's best prospect. Regardless of which side one takes, Harper still appears to be a franchise-changing player.

The Nationals are the only team in history to have the overall No. 1 pick in consecutive First-Year Player Drafts, and they intend to build a contender on the twin cornerstones of Stephen Strasburg and Harper.

At some point this summer, it still seems likely the two of them will be in the same Major League lineup for the first time. And won't that be interesting? How about 49-year-old Jamie Moyer pitching to 19-year-old Bryce Harper on July 6 at Nationals Park?

The Nationals have done an excellent job building the rest of the roster with Drew Storen, Jordan Zimmermann, Ryan Zimmerman, Danny Espinosa and others among the game's highly regarded younger players.

General manager Mike Rizzo had a nice offseason in adding Gio Gonzalez, Edwin Jackson and Brad Lidge to the pitching staff, and the Nationals are optimistic they're going to be a factor in the National League East race.

If Harper had started the season in the Major Leagues, there's a really good chance he would have needed two or three months to figure things out. In the end, though, he would have figured them out. He's just that special.

On the other hand, there's nothing lost by sending him back to the Minors and allowing him to polish his hitting and become comfortable playing center field. It's easy to forget that his entire professional career consists of less than a full season, and that he won't turn 20 until October.

But to see him in person is to believe. He's a very solid 6-foot-3 after an offseason of weightlifting and conditioning. He said the length of the professional season wore him down, and he understood the importance of strength training in helping maintain endurance.

It would have been fascinating to see what the Nationals would have done if Harper had torn up the Grapefruit League and made their decision to send him back to the Minor Leagues more difficult.

Manager Davey Johnson had urged his bosses to look at Harper as another player and ignore the side issues. Nationals management envisions having Bryce Harper in the middle of their lineup for at least 15 years, but managers never think that far in advance.

There was always a critical financial consideration lurking in the background. By sending him back to the Minors for at least 21 days, the Nationals could delay Harper's free agency by a full season.

Harper had hoped to make the decision difficult. He called being in the Major Leagues on Opening Day at 19 "a lifelong dream."

He may understand why he'll be given more time in the Minor Leagues, but he's so young that it must seem like his path to the Major Leagues has taken an eternity.

The Nationals probably feel the same way. Early in Spring Training, Johnson's coaches stopped giving the manager reports on him. Few of them had ever seen a better 19-year-old player, and there really wasn't much more to say.

Sometime this season, probably sooner rather than later, the entire baseball world will focus on Nationals Park as Harper steps into the batter's box for the first time. At that point, our wait will be worth it.

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.