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Harper has set his goals for first spring camp

Harper has set his goals for first spring camp

Harper has set his goals for first spring camp
WASHINGTON -- The Nationals' position players report to Spring Training on Feb. 20, and Bryce Harper's arrival is the most anticipated -- for good reason.

In addition to being the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 First-Year Player Draft and being labeled baseball's version of LeBron James, Harper has proven that he can play with professionals. He hit .319 with a .407 on-base percentage for the Nationals in the instructional league. He also led the team in several offensive categories, including hits, homers, RBIs and walks.

He then went to the Arizona Fall League and didn't disappoint, hitting .343 with a home run and seven RBIs for the Scottsdale Scorpions.

"I've watched him, and he looks like a phenomenal athlete and player. He is well advanced for his age," Hall of Famer Al Kaline said. "He looks like he is going to be a great player. I love his swing. I love his approach. He has power, but he uses the whole field."

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He may be baseball's next "can't miss" prospect, but Harper, 18, knows he has a lot to work on. A few days ago, he wrote down what he wants to accomplish during Spring Training and beyond.

"I want to go out there, try to get better, learn from all the big league guys, see how they approach the game and how they go about their business," Harper said during a phone interview with MLB.com. "I want to get better in the outfield. ... That is my main goal. I want to see what opposing pitchers will do and how they will throw to hitters like Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth.

"There are a lot of things that I write down -- baserunning. I learned a lot of things from [Nationals Minor League instructor] Tony Tarasco in the outfield. The outfield is the main thing I have to get better at right now -- the outfield and the mental part of the game."

Harper spent most of his amateur career behind the plate, but after they drafted him, the Nationals decided that his big league arrival could be hastened by playing right field. However, that decision looks as though it could change again, with him playing center field, because right field belongs to the newly acquired Werth.

No problem, says Harper.

"I'm not sure where I will play," he said. "I think I play center field better than I do anywhere else. I have enough speed and enough reaction to know where the ball goes off the bat. Being around Tony Tarasco and my dad, who played center field, has been a big help for me. Whether it's left, center or right, I will play anywhere the Nationals need me."

In addition to the position change, Harper will need to adjust to dealing with Major League media exposure.

As with Stephen Strasburg a year ago, the Nationals will try to structure Harper's dealings with the media as much as possible. Harper will most likely have news conferences and group sessions by his locker, but one-on-one interviews will be hard to come by, as the Nationals want him to concentrate on baseball.

"I've always talked to the media. I'm pretty respectful to the media," Harper said. "If they want to talk to me, if I'm available, I'll talk to them. I'm not going to blow off the media, because they are going to be around for a long time. I think you have to be respectful to the people who want to talk to you."

Harper's father, Ron, agrees that the media has a job to do, but he wants his youngest son to be successful on the baseball field.

"Everybody has to be respectful to Bryce and the rest of the team and let them do their job," Ron Harper said. "If he could give interviews or sit down with somebody, so be it.

"Hopefully, at every level, he will do what he needs to do to achieve that ultimate goal of being a Major League player. There is going to be good and bad, so he is going to have to learn to take it, which he has. He went through a lot more than people know at 18. I'm very proud of how he has handled a lot of the stuff."

And he is just 18. And just like your average 18-year-old, Harper will also be adjusting to living away from his family.

For the first time in his life, Harper will be without Ron and his mother, Sherri, for a full season. He said that he will miss his mother's home-cooked meals and his dad's advice.

Harper credits his mother's handiwork with food for keeping him healthy all these years. He also relies heavily on his father when it comes to his swing.

"I love being around my family. It's that comfort of being at home," he said. "But I'm really excited to go out and play a full season of baseball -- playing that many games and going through the grind. I'm really excited. I can't wait to get out there."

Ron plans to watch his son as much as possible. No one knows Bryce's swing better.

"Whenever I'm around him, I'm going to get some film on him," Ron said. "Of course, when he is on TV -- thank God for TiVo -- I'll be watching. I'm sure we'll be talking on the phone. We don't talk during games. We let things happen. You have to learn from your failures, and that is a huge thing. I think people who micromanage can nitpick. They can get to your head and drive you crazy. It's not a good thing to me. That is not our philosophy. We just work hard in practice and let the games dictate what happens and make adjustments as quick as [we] can."

Harper will rely heavily on hitting coach Rick Eckstein, who, he says, has the same hitting philosophy as his father.

"It is good that Rick has the same hitting philosophy as Pops, but I'm still going to listen to my dad, because he knows my swing better than anybody," Harper said.

Eckstein watched Harper play in the AFL, and it was more than just the high batting average that impressed him. It was Harper's work ethic that blew him away. Harper spent the AFL season on the taxi squad, which meant that he could only play twice a week. Between games, Harper worked hard on his offense and defense, and acted as though he were going to play every day.

"He attacks the baseball, which is great for a hitter," Eckstein said. "The days that he wasn't playing, he treated those days as if he was playing. He would go out during batting practice and get reads off the bat in right field and center field. He was working to get better in the outfield. It was impressive watching him work.

"Obviously, in batting practice, he was doing well. He was lining the ball around the park and then driving balls [over the fence]. It was very impressive how he conducted his batting practices. He is very advanced at the plate. Mentally, he has a great feel for what he wants to do and a great work ethic for accomplishing it."

It's clear that Harper has impressed the Nationals organization, but fans are always going to want to know -- When will he be in Washington?

Talk to club officials, and all indications are that he will play in the big leagues within two years, but Harper -- who is expected to start his pro career with Class A Hagerstown -- is shooting for a September callup.

"I'm just going to Spring Training, to work as hard as I can, play my [rear] off like I always do and make their decision hard," Harper said. "I like to make people make hard decisions. I'm going to play as much as I can and enjoy my first Spring Training. I'm going to let the higher power take care of where I need to go."

Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time. He also could be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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