Harper's plan: 'Keep my mouth shut and play'

Harper's plan: 'Keep my mouth shut and play'
February 20, 2012, 9:14 pm
Share This Post

VIERA, Fla. -- Bryce Harper reported for spring training today and made it clear what he must do to be included on the Nationals' Opening Day roster.

"I'm going to come in here, work as hard as I can, keep my mouth shut and play," he said.

In truth, the 19-year-old's path to Wrigley Field on April 5 is a bit more complicated than that. Simply showing up to camp, working hard and keeping his mouth closed isn't going to guarantee Harper anything.

But the gregarious right fielder does seem to understand that the spotlight will be fixed on him for the next six weeks, and it's up to him to prove he's ready to handle the attention ... not to mention big-league pitching.

One year ago, Harper (barely 18 and barely removed from high school) reported for his first professional spring training and looked the part. He stood out like a sore thumb in the Nationals' clubhouse, a cocky teenager among men.

As he made his way through that same clubhouse today, though, Harper looked like he belonged more. He already knows most of the other players. He already knows the daily routine.

"I'm pretty comfortable this year, knowing guys around me," he said. "I'm just a lot more comfortable in here this year, and I'm excited to see what happens."

What will happen? The company line remains the same: The Nationals will keep an open mind on bringing Harper north with them at the end of camp, but the odds continue to be against that happening. Ideally, they'd like for him to get a few at-bats at Class AAA Syracuse before making his big-league debut, not wanting to risk rushing a player who only has one season of professional experience to this point.

Harper does have a big supporter, though, in manager Davey Johnson, who has never been afraid to throw a talented, young player to the wolves. "It's huge to have the manager on your side," Harper said.

Johnson perhaps softened his stance today on the 2010 No. 1 pick making the club out of spring training, citing the influx of left-handed bats the Nationals signed late this winter. At the same time: "He's still in the mix to have an opportunity," Johnson said and suggested Harper will see significant playing time against big-league competition this spring.

On the field, Harper believes he's made major strides in the last year, especially in the outfield. A converted catcher, he feels more comfortable now in right field and has learned how and when to cut loose on throws.

"I made a lot of progress in the outfield, and I'm still going to try to make progress out there," he said. "I want to be a Gold Glove out there, too. I don't want to just be known as a hitter."

Off the field, Harper understands he needs to show he's ready to be a big leaguer, whether that's how he comports himself in the clubhouse or even how he presents himself on his newest passion: Twitter.

Harper has taken some heat for his honest answers via his Twitter account, but he loves interacting with fans and doesn't want to change that.

"That's just the way I am," he said. "I like giving them the real me. I want them to know the real me."

Even if you open yourself to criticism by declaring yourself a fan of the Lakers, Cowboys and Duke basketball?

"I'm going to get blown up either way," Harper said. "If I say something right or something wrong, that's just how it's going to be. There's nothing I can really do about that. Some things maybe I shouldn't say, and some things I've got to learn from. And there are some things I should just keep my mouth shut on. I need to grow up in that aspect, I guess. But I feel good about what I say and I'm not going to back down from anything."

Ultimately, Harper believes the decision when to promote him to the majors is a baseball decision. So that's where his focus will be over the next six weeks, playing every day "with fire" and hoping by the end of camp he's convinced the right people he deserves to be a big leaguer at 19.

"That's the best I can do," he said. "If they want to send me back down, that's them. But I want to be up here, like I said. I want to play in D.C."