For sophomore effort, Harper's aspirations lofty
Reigning NL ROY arrives at Nationals camp with main goal a World Series title
VIERA, Fla. -- Time stops for no man, but it hardly even slowed for Bryce Harper in his rookie season.
It began April 28 in Los Angeles, when Washington's top prospect doubled off pitcher Chad Billingsley in his debut, flipped off his helmet on the way to second base, mohawk on full display. On it went, television appearance after autograph request, through his first All-Star Game and all the way to the Nationals' first playoff appearance. Harper reached unprecedented levels for a teenager in the big leagues, winning the National League Rookie of the Year Award six lightning-quick months later.
It wasn't until around that time in November that the phenom finally got to unwind. Harper spent time with his family -- his brother, Bryan, is also in the Nationals' organization -- and his dog, which are of great importance to him. He admitted he tuned out of the playoffs once the Nats were eliminated in stunning fashion by the Cardinals in Game 5 of the NL Division Series in Washington.
"No," Harper said. "College football."
But Thursday, Harper returned to the environment he was thrust into just under a year ago. Lights and cameras around him, dirt beneath his spikes. One of a handful of must-see, worth-the-price-of-admission players in baseball. And one heck of a premier to follow up on.
"I'm still that young guy out there," said Harper, now 20. "I'm still going to play the same game I play, 120 percent every single day I'm out there. If I'm hurt, on my deathbed, it doesn't really matter. I'm going to go out there, work hard and play the game the right way."
We may never have seen a teenager in baseball quite like Harper. He became one of just 17 players since 1893 younger than 20 to qualify for the batting title. Harper recorded the most bases (254) and extra-base hits (57) of any teenager, as well as the second-most walks (56), home runs (22), stolen bases (18) and runs (98) of any teenager.
And yet it's impossible to know what's in store for 2013. Harper arrived at camp Thursday noticeably bigger and stronger in the upper body (and mohawk in fine form), saying he's weighing in at about 230 pounds with the expectation he'll drop to around 220 by Opening Day. He'll likely have a new position (left field) due to the signing of Denard Span, and perhaps even a new spot in the batting order, depending on how Davey Johnson envisions slotting Span, Jayson Werth, Harper and Ryan Zimmerman.
"It really worked pretty well last year, with Jayson and Harp [batting first and second] because pitchers had to use everything they had and they threw a lot of pitches to the first two guys," Johnson said. "And I know Zim really liked that and the rest of the guys in the lineup, because they'd see the whole repertoire."
Surely, any transition Harper undergoes will be no more difficult than the one he made after he was drafted out of the College of Southern Nevada, where he played primarily catcher.
"I know I'm not going to the bullpen," Harper joked about the potential change of scenery. "I started out [in left field] last year. So it's just another spot, trying to make some plays, throw some guys out. And just hit. That's the biggest thing. As long as I'm in the lineup, I'm hitting, doing anything I can do to help this team. That's good for me."
Harper will have the luxury of 139 games and nearly 600 plate appearances under his belt when he presumably takes the field in Washington on April 1 against the Marlins. There were plenty of firsts last season, including becoming the only player under the age of 20 to steal 18 bases and hit as many homers.
There was also Harper's first slump: after batting .307/.390/.553 in his first 40 games, he hit .204/.273/.290 in his next 55. But he sorted things out, ending the season on a torrid pace to finish .270/.340/.477. This year, Harper said, the primary objective is to win a World Series. And Johnson knows the young outfielder is imperative to the Nationals' chances.
"Bryce is Bryce," Johnson said. "He's a gamer. He's all-in. But one thing, he's smart. He's a student of the game. I'm sure that's not going to change. He knows what they're trying to do and he studies film, and he's more prepared this year. I thought he went through a little down period [last season] and then came back, and that kind of experience is invaluable."