Harper will be center of attention at Nats camp

Harper will be center of attention at Nats camp
February 2, 2011, 3:54 pm
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Wednesday, February 2, 2011, 10:53 a.m.

By Mark ZuckermanCSNwashington.com

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The home clubhouse at Space Coast Stadium this spring will house a 31-year-old right fielder who owns the 14th-largest contract in baseball history. It will house a two-time Silver Slugger who is arguably the best third baseman in the game. It will house perhaps the greatest catcher of all-time, inching ever closer to 3,000 career hits. And it will house a phenom right-hander whose every move last season became national news.

Yet the player who likely will draw more attention than Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman, Ivan Rodriguez, Stephen Strasburg or anyone else in a Washington Nationals uniform will be an 18-year-old with no chance of making the Opening Day roster or even reaching the major leagues in 2011.

Bryce Harper is about to become the center of attention at spring training, a teenager appearing in big-league camp despite having yet to play a regular-season game in the minor leagues.

Though the Nationals aren't hiding the fact Harper will open the season in the low minors (most likely Class A Hagerstown) they are obligated to put him in big-league camp this spring because he signed a major-league contract last summer and thus resides on their 40-man roster. His stay will be brief -- he'll almost certainly be among the first wave of cuts and be re-assigned to minor-league camp down the street -- but it won't go unnoticed.

Everyone wants to get a glimpse of the No. 1 draft pick who appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated at 16, was named the country's best college player at 17 and thrived against other elite prospects in the Arizona Fall League at 18. As was the case last spring when Strasburg arrived on the scene, national media members will find their way to Viera, Fla., to chronicle the Nationals' latest phenom.

How much they'll actually see and hear of Harper remains to be seen. The Nationals will attempt to limit Harper's exposure, both on the field and in front of microphones, much as they did with Strasburg one year ago.

It might be difficult to keep the reins on Harper, a gregarious kid who seems to enjoy life in the spotlight, as opposed to the often-reticent Strasburg. But the Nationals want to be careful to keep Harper's focus on the field as he enters his first professional season.

The club's ultimate choice of Harper's season-opening locale may hinge in part on keeping him out of the spotlight as well. Though he's probably talented enough at this point to play at high-Class A Potomac, he'd draw tons of attention playing 30 minutes south of Washington. Hagerstown, which plays in the low-Class A South Atlantic League, is a bit more remote and would provide fewer distractions for Harper as he begins play.

The Nationals know they won't be able to treat Harper with kid gloves forever, and they're fully prepared for him to advance quickly through their farm system. The catcher-turned-outfielder has publicly stated he hopes to reach the majors by the end of 2011, but club officials would be stunned if that happens.

A more likely scenario would have Harper splitting this season between Hagerstown and Potomac, then opening next year at Class AA Harrisburg. If he continued to dominate at that level, a promotion to Washington would be in the works sometime in 2012.

All of this, of course, depends on Harper's performance and his ability to deal with all the hoopla and pressure that will be thrust upon the latest can't-miss phenom to hit the scene.

The Nationals (and Harper) will get their first taste of that in a couple of weeks when the 18-year-old's locker becomes the center of attention in a spring training clubhouse full of ballplayers with far more experience.

Mark Zuckerman covers the Nationals full-time for CSNwashington.com. He also blogs about the team at natsinsider.com.