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Harper's maturation continues to attract attention

Harper's maturation continues to attract attention play video for Harper's maturation continues to attract attention

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- When Bryce Harper stepped to the plate for the first time Friday night at Champion Stadium, the reaction from crowd was a little louder, a little more mixed than it was for the other visiting Nationals.

That's not a surprise. Harper, one of the most touted young players to come into the league in years, took baseball by storm last season. He was voted the National League Rookie of the Year. He had graced the covers of numerous magazines, most recently Men's Health and Sports Illustrated. And he's still just 20 years old.

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And it didn't take him long to remind everybody in attendance what the fuss is about. He launched the second pitch he saw from Braves starter Julio Teheran for an opposite-field home run to left.

In five Grapefruit League games, Harper is 7-for-13 (.538) with two doubles and a homer.

Harper turned heads when he showed up for Spring Training this year some 20 pounds heavier after a rigorous offseason training program. Part of the rationale may have been that he tends to lose weight as the grind of the season progresses. Part may have been an understandable desire to add more power. Davey Johnson suggested still another factor.

"He's still growing as far as I'm concerned," the manager said. "He's gotten a little bigger, but he looked like a man to me last year. Played older than his age, that's for sure. He came into camp swinging the bat good."

Harper reportedly was on a heavy lifting program that started at 5:30 in the morning four days a week. The results were impressive.

"It gives me a good chance to relax and hang out and clear my mind," he told The Washington Post. "Lifting and stuff really helps me clear my mind. I love it."

It was also noteworthy that Harper started in center field on Friday night. That was the position he played the most last season, but the arrival of Denard Span and the departure of Mike Morse allowed Harper to be penciled into left. The idea was that this would help reduce wear and tear.

Still, Johnson said there will be times this year when Harper goes back to center -- if, heaven forbid, Span gets hurt. Or if he needs a rest. Or if the manager wants a little different look in his lineup.

"Span's a high energy guy, and center is a demanding position," Johnson explained. "You cover a lot of ground. There will be times -- even though he's pretty good against left and right -- there will be times when I want to get a little more right-handed. So I'd probably bring the youngster to center and go that way."

In that configuration, right-handed-swinging converted first baseman Tyler Moore would get the start in left.

"It's a lot more settled," Johnson said. "We didn't have our left fielder until midseason last year. We were doing all kinds of things out there. This year, it's more like what a pennant contender would be.

"I think [Moore] has come a long way. I like where he's at. This is also the first time he's gotten some time in right. Early on, I put him out there alongside Span because I wanted him to be comfortable there. Because I think the relationship between outfielders is just as important as the guy on second base [and the shortstop]."

Starting Harper in center was only one of the moves Johnson made against the Braves to build depth for down the road. Second baseman Danny Espinosa was at shortstop. Espinosa played last year with a torn rotator cuff and opted for a strengthening program rather than surgery.

So far, so good. Johnson was asked if he thought Espinosa was poised to have a breakthrough season.

"He actually likes going over to shortstop. He doesn't mind it," the manager said.

"I think he's in a good place right now. I think in a lot of cases, it depends on, 'Did a need arise where you might have rushed him a hair?' There are some pretty polished pitchers here. So that's a learning experience. They learn your hot areas and how to pitch you. So that takes a while."

Harper, meanwhile, struck out in his second at bat of the 6-5 win over the Braves and beat out a grounder to shortstop in the seventh when Tyler Pastornicky bobbled the ball. Harper came out of the game for a pinch-runner at that point, and the crowd, once again, reacted.

No matter where he plays, Harper clearly is going to attract a lot of attention this season.

Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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{"event":["spring_training" ] }
{"event":["spring_training" ] }