He is, for now, the most famous player in Triple-A. The Sultan of Syracuse, chief of the Chiefs. But as Opening Day approaches, we can say, with some certainty, that 2012 figures to be the year we get our first look at Bryce Harper at the Major League level. And be sure to include this on an already abundant list of reasons to be excited for the year ahead. Harper -- No. 1 on the Nationals' Top 20 Prospects list, and No. 2 on MLB.com's Top 100 Prospects list -- is a polarizing and yet altogether magnetic force, an inspirer of awe or guffaw. You don't have to be a scout to appreciate his obvious talent (the sound of the ball thwacking his bat in batting practice is a source of acoustic trauma), but his bombastic personality forces you to love him or loathe him, with little in between.
So Harper, prior to his inevitable demotion, served as the center of attention this spring, even in a Nationals camp in which Stephen Strasburg has been taking the ball every fifth day and Ryan Zimmerman has signed a $100 million deal.
And when Harper makes his Major League debut, as anticipated, this summer, it's going to be the sport's central storyline. Because not only will Harper -- a guy who was on the cover of Sports Illustrated at an age that the rest of us are preoccupied by the driver's test -- finally feast on big league pitching, but he'll be doing so at the tender age of 19. Prodigies tend to pique our interest. "I just think if I get up there this year or next year or whenever I make it, I just want to stick there," Harper said. "I want to be a game-changer and make sure we win, and I can help this ballclub win." If the Nats didn't think Harper could be a game-changer, they wouldn't have entertained the idea of him breaking camp with the big league club. But it would have taken a transcendent spring performance from Harper to make it happen. A calf injury hurt his cause and holes in his swing (11 strikeouts in 28 at-bats) sealed his fate, as if the service-time implications hadn't done so in the first place. As long as Harper remains in the Minors until late April, the Nationals gain a year of contractual control of him, ensuring he can't hit free agency until after the 2018 season. And if he stays down there until mid-June, they ensure he won't get four arbitration-eligible seasons rather than the customary three.
So whether it's a few weeks or a few months, Harper's Major League timetable is delayed. And that's the only reasonable outlook anyway, given that he's played just 37 games at Double-A and that he hit .256 with a .724 OPS at that level. But if Harper lives up to the projections and expectations, he will, sometime between now and September, become the latest in a long line of teenyboppers turned loose on the bigs. According to baseball-reference.com, since 1901, there have been 742 times a player in his age-19 or younger (as of June 30) season has logged at least a single appearance in a Major League season, from Ty Cobb to Mickey Mantle to Johnny Bench to Justin Upton. It's happened 218 times in the expansion era, 33 times in the past 30 years and 18 times in the past 20 years, most recently when Mike Trout first suited up for the Angels last summer. But the impactful teenage position player -- what the Nats undoubtedly will be expecting Harper to be, if they call him up in the first month or two of the season -- is quite rare. Consider that in the modern era, only 16 position players have logged at least 100 games played in their age-19 (or younger) season -- Johnny Lush, Freddie Lindstrom, Mel Ott, Phil Cavarretta (both 18 and 19), Buddy Lewis, Sibby Sisti, Bob Kennedy, Cass Michaels, Al Kaline, Rusty Staub, Ed Kranepool, Robin Yount (both 18 and 19), Jose Oquendo, Ken Griffey Jr. and, most recently, Edgar Renteria in 1996. Their results are decidedly mixed. Arguably the best season of the bunch belongs to Tony Conigliaro, who, at age 19 in 1964, hit .290 with an .882 OPS and 24 homers for the Red Sox. A star was born, but Conigliaro's promising career would be irrevocably altered three years later, when he was hit by a pitch and nearly blinded. Ott hit .322 with 18 homers and a .921 OPS for the Giants at the age of 19 in 1928 (though that was his third Major League season), and Griffey hit his first 16 homers at the age of 19 in 1989. Other than that, though, this particular list is devoid of true difference-makers. The .267 average Yount compiled over his age-18 and age-19 seasons was merely a stepping stone toward the greatness he would achieve later in his Hall of Fame career. Likewise Kaline, who hit .276 at the age of 19 before breaking out and winning the batting title with a .340 average in 1955, at the age of 20. So if a few Hall of Famers had to endure an adjustment period, surely the same can be anticipated for Harper. We must, then, temper our immediate emotions when it comes to this kid, no matter how many glowing things are said about him. "The kid's hitting balls 600 feet in batting practice," veteran Mark DeRosa said earlier this spring. "He plays the game hard, too. That's what I appreciate about watching him play. He's going to be a star. I don't think anybody questions that." Nobody does. But first, of course, there is a maturation process both on and off the field. When it comes to the latter, Harper seemed to make huge strides this spring, at least in the eyes of those in the Nationals' locker room. The veterans on the roster made sure he knew his place in the pecking order. Jayson Werth filled up the empty locker next to Harper's with his extra stuff so that the kid wouldn't have the privilege of a double-wide space so soon. And when Harper arrived to the clubhouse on the morning of the club's first full-squad workout, the nameplate above his locker read "JOE NAMATH 12," a friendly jab at Harper for telling MLB.com he wants to emulate the football legend. It was all about keeping Harper humble -- a potentially impossible task, given the attention and acclaim he's received from the get-go. But Harper deleted his Twitter account early in camp, toned it down in some interviews and earned himself added respect from his peers. "As far as maturity, the difference from him last year to this year is night and day," Zimmerman said. "Not that he was bad last year, but this year you can tell he's gone through a season. I think going through a season makes you mature a lot quicker. Physically, he's as talented as anyone. Mentally, he's come a long way." And he still has a long way to go. Double-A proved to be an adjustment for Harper in those weeks leading up to a season-ending hamstring injury, and Triple-A will be another test. Beyond that, there is the acclimation to center field, which could prove to be his Major League meal ticket. "If he can handle it and we think that he is a long-term answer for us in center, he would certainly be the long-term answer," general manager Mike Rizzo said. "If we feel that he can handle the position at the Major League level now and look for better down the road, then we'll keep that in mind, too." And so the 2012 season dawns with Harper in Syracuse, and that's clearly for the best. But when it comes to subplots to this 2012 season, the Harper promotion watch will be a big one. "I want to be as ready as I can," Harper said. "If not this year, then so be it. But I want to be as ready as I can."
Teens who broke into the big leagues in past 20 seasons
|Todd Van Poppel||19||A's||1991|
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.