Cool, Confident Bryce Harper at Home Already in Washington
That no 17-year-old, no matter how hyped, can be that good. That even if he has an other-worldly swing, surely the pressure inherent in signing a $9.9 million deal when he should be preparing for his senior year of high school will creep in and become an issue at some point.
As evidence to the contrary, we offer this exchange from Harper's introductory press conference Thursday at Nationals Park. It had been noted previously that Harper engaged in a brief chat with Albert Pujols after the kid took a couple rounds of batting practice earlier in the afternoon. That had to be a thrill, right?
"I've known Albert for a while," Harper said breezily, as if every teenager was on a first-name basis with the best player in the game. "He's a great guy, has a great swing. Just a humble, incredible guy to be around. I hung out with him at the All-Star Game also, him and Matt Holliday, actually."
Oh. OK. Never mind.
Don't kid yourself, baseball fans. This kid knows exactly what he's doing. And even though he tossed in -- unprompted -- a line about how happy he would have been to head back for another tour with the College of Southern Nevada if things hadn't worked out with the Nationals, there really was nowhere else for him to be but here.
He'll spend the next couple of weeks preparing to join the rest of the Nationals' top young prospects in the Florida Instructional League, then perhaps get a crack at the elite Arizona Fall League after that. Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said Harper's path will be determined "step-by-step," but don't be surprised if the kid skips a few.
That's one of the reasons Harper will start his professional career as an outfielder instead of a catcher. Though he's a good enough athlete to play several positions on the field, the Nationals drafted him for his bat, and the fastest way to get his bat to the majors will be to play him at a less demanding defensive position. Getting out from the pounding he would take as a regular behind the plate is also part of the plan; as a left or right fielder, he'll be able to play for weeks at a time without worry of the regular days off catchers traditionally receive.
"Being an everyday player is very, very important," Rizzo said. "We're going to develop him at a rate that maximizes his impactability."
That's not even a real word, impactability, but we might as well rewrite the language for Harper considering how many molds he has broken already.
So, about that batting practice session Thursday. Yeah, it was only batting practice, but even those who have watched legitimate major leaguers take endless rounds of BP had to take notice of what Harper did hours before the gates opened. His swing was smooth and his power easy, whether he was clocking balls out into the third deck down the right field line or hitting a laser off the fence in left-center.
"He hit one up in the third deck there in right field -- that's a place where Adam Dunn's hit a few, but that's about it," said Nationals manager Jim Riggleman. "Not too many other people hit them up there."
That one certainly wowed the crowd, which consisted mostly of media types, agent Scott Boras and his entourage, Harper's family and assorted Nationals players and staffers. But Harper himself seemed to prefer those pokes to the opposite field.
"I think that's my best power, to left," Harper said. "I love hitting that oppo boppo."
Yes, the kid has some personality and is obviously quite comfortable in his own skin. He is, in that regard, quite a departure from the other pillar in the Nationals' master plan, Stephen Strasburg, who shuns the spotlight whenever possible and probably wouldn't think of uttering some of the things Harper did during a 15-minute media briefing.
Asked, for instance, about his new haircut -- sort of a near-Mohawk look -- and how long he might stick with it, Harper had no trouble formulating a quotable response.
"My sister, she's a beautician, so she tries different things on me," he said. "The ladies like it, so ..."
This is a kid who's used to being the center of attention. He waved off more than one question about the media crush assembled for his press conference, which was televised live in the D.C. area, and noted that he's had "little kids" looking up to him for some time now.
There's an easy way to tell he's not just blowing smoke in that regard -- just tune into the Little League World Series. The game on the television in the Nationals' clubhouse Thursday afternoon featured several pre-teens sporting Harper's trademark war-paint look, with eye black smeared down their cheeks as they peered out from under oversized batting helmets.
"That's the biggest thing, trying to teach the little guys how to go out there and just have fun, just go out there and play ball," Harper said. "It's baseball, and baseball, you've got to have fun or you're not going to play well, that's what I think."
Don't mistake Harper's glibness for the nonchalance of the outrageously gifted, though. Scouts ooh and aah over plenty of players' tools, from high school on up to the majors, but superstars always seem to have the perfectionist bent that already is evident in Harper.
There's little doubt that the baseball player in him -- the vast majority of his being -- would have signed with the Nationals a few hours after being drafted back in June so he could get out and play in minor-league games right away. The business of the game demanded he spin his wheels for two months before the inevitable deadline dance between Boras and Rizzo produced a last-minute solution, but Harper described all that waiting he has had to do since playing his last junior college game as "a horrible break" -- the longest he has ever fidgeted between games that count.
And even all the hubbub he stirred up Thursday with his official unveiling didn't do much to satisfy him. Sure, it was "every kid's dream" to go out there and take batting practice on a major league field. But the fact remained that when the first pitch was thrown, Harper was wearing a Nationals cap and No. 34 jersey with the remnants of his black three-piece suit (the jacket having been discarded hours earlier) rather than uniform pants and spikes.
So in his mind, all that transpired Thursday night really wasn't that big a deal because he was no closer to playing in the majors than he had been when the day began.
"I'm not where I want to be," he said, before a brief hat tip to his big-league surroundings. "I'm where I want to be, but I'm not up at the big-league level right now. I've still got a lot of things to prove and a lot of things to do -- get bigger, faster, stronger, stuff like that.
"I'm never satisfied with myself or anything about me; I always think I can get better and improve on every part of my game. Just to go out there and take another round of BP and have a little fun, that's not where I want to be right now."
Maybe not, but every indication Thursday was that Harper will be ready when his time finally comes.