Bryce Harper still has the swag and arrogance that made him the highest-touted MLB prospect since Ken Griffey Jr.
When asked in January what he learned about himself during an injury-plagued 2013 sophomore campaign, in which the 21-year-old phenom gritted through multiple side, knee and hip injuries and only played 118 games, Harper replied: "That I like hitting walk-off homers."
To say that Harper is still a work in progress is an understatement. Harper’s always been baseball’s best prospect. Harper donned the front of Sports Illustrated as a high school sophomore. He was the old Nas cover. It was written. He signed the thickest contract ever by a first-year player with the Nats in 2010 and there’s already been a book written about him. This kid was blasting homers off college dudes as a 15-year-old.
But hype is only half of real life. Harper came into the league with Michael Jackson, living-off-the-wall, baseball props. And while he’s performed admirably – winning the NL ROY Award in 2012, batting .270 with 22 HRs, 59 RBI and 9 triples in 138 games and then banging another 20 dingers last season – he’s no longer at the front seat of the phenom train.
Cats like Mike Trout, Manny Machado and Yasiel Puig have created manias of their own and risen to the top of MLB’s future legends list. Trout has run laps around Harper, a cat that most experts considered twice the prospect.
Puig became an icon in one month with the Dodgers.
Machado is a workhorse who led the AL in at-bats with 667 and doubles with 51. His glove work is incomparable at third.
If not for his brash, bold demeanor, convincing heir of superiority and the mythical tales that still keep his stock platinum, Harper would almost be considered the forgotten man in this new generation mix. He still gets major props for being young and on-the-come-up, but his Ruthian arrival hasn’t happened yet.
Statistically Harper isn’t messing with the aforementioned young studs, and it doesn’t have anything to do with talent. Harper still has the lightening quick bat and the freakish power. The Clemente-like arm and the Pete Rose hustle are still in play.
Harper’s go-all-out mentality has led to injuries that have sidelined him for large stretches of time and hampered his ability to play at full capacity. Most people attributed last season’s injuries to two wall collisions in April and May, but Harper says that he had been having troubles before then and just played through it.
"I’ll probably never do that again, “ Harper said about playing hurt. “My knee was a lot worse than people probably thought. I’ll probably never do that again."
Harper had surgery back in October to repair the bursa in his left knee. He has been working on building mass during the offseason in hopes of staying injury-free. This is a critical year for the Nats, who lost some of the luster they had earned during an historic 98-win 2012 season by failing to make the playoffs in 2013. It’s also a pivotal year for Harper. He needs to exhibit the consistency and intelligence of a Machado, post some of those crazy Trout numbers (bang 30 dingers and swipe 40 bags) and have a couple of Puig type months. Staying healthy is vital to Harper achieving his full potential. If he is injury prone, then we can be looking at a Dave Parker career rather than a Frank Robinson–type run.
Harper said that his surgically repaired knee feels "great" and the outfielder will have no restrictions as the team begins full spring training workouts this week, Manager Matt Williams said.
The Nationals will still stay true to form and coddle their 21-year-old celebrity slugger, resting him if necessary as he continues to regain strength in his wheels.
“As far as I know, he is full-go for spring training,” Williams said in a Feb. 15 washingtonpost.com article. “We’re going to monitor him, though. We’re going to see how his knee reacts. There’s no way, even in a rehab situation, there’s no way to really simulate a game or the stuff that we do on the field until you do it. That’s why guys go out on rehab and play games, because you just can’t do it. So we’ll monitor him every day. If we see anything that’s bothering him, we’ll modify his program first. And if we’ve got to hold him out a day, we’ll hold him out a day to make sure he’s ready to go. As of right now, he’s full-go.”
Sounds like it will be a day-to-day thing with Harper, who was noncommittal about his availability for the start of spring training when speaking to reporters at NatsFest in January. He wanted to complete his 16-week rehab program before he joined full workouts. The Nats feel he has and you know Harper is eager to play. He’s still a baby in baseball years, but he’s facing some grown man stuff right now.
Harper lives for the limelight, but he can’t let it affect his decisions. You know he sees those other young cats grabbing the headlines from him and slowly stepping into what was once his sole domain. He wants to close that gap faster than he jets from first to third. Bryce knows he hasn’t had that break-out campaign and he also knows it coming.
The injury bug is something that humanizes athletes and turns potential masterpieces into incomplete canvases of what could have been. Part of being a great player is being able to mentally and emotionally deal with setbacks. So far, Harper is in good spirits and ready to rip some grass and kick some ass. Moving forward, it will be interesting to see how Harper reacts and responds to Nats management as they try to healthily maneuver him through this season.
"I don't want to run into another wall, Harper added."That killed me for a whole season. Having 15 stitches and having me knee all messed up and things like that, I don't wanna do."
The whole knee rehab got messy last June when former manager Davey Johnson and Harper were not on the same page concerning his return from bursitis. Harper was telling reporters that he wasn’t sure if he’d be ready to go by the projected date. Johnson, an old school skipper, took exception to it.
"I'll have a conversation with him about that," Johnson said. "When a player starts playing, it's really up to me, what I think they need. Not up to the player. I'm always trying to do what's best for the player. But at the same time, it's my job to know when they're ready and when they're not."
It's almost like an RG3 situation all over again. Like Griffin III, Harper has drawn criticism for injuries attributed to his reckless style of play and has watched "lesser players" elevate above him in the rat race. Just a year ago, RG3 and Harper were larger than life and the souls of a rejuvenated Washington sports culture. While their impact on people is superhuman, they have been bitch-slapped by casts and braces; symbols of the the harsh reality of their mortality. With the injuries piling up, Harper vows to be more cautious during spring training.
Uh-Oh. There's that word again. Caution. People throw it around as if a player who has garnered success playing at 100 mph is going to be able to "tone it down" and be equally effective. Remember, that same ego-redesign didn't bode well for RG3 this season.
"I might be a little smarter next year, " Harper said in January. "We were 18 games out. I shouldn't have been on the field probably. But that's the type of player I am. I'm going to go out there and give it all I can, and I'm gonna play every game like it's my last. That's what these fans expect; that's what baseball expects; and that's what I wanna do."
The situation was telling concerning Harper's mental state at the time. Despite his gung-ho attitude, he was careful in his return, which makes sense if you believe it when Harper says he foolishly played through injuries last season.
There's no reason to think Harper isn't telling the truth. He's a go-hard on the field. It's just going to be hard for him to keep up with the Jones' and master baseball at a pro level at 90 percent capacity.
Harper needs to cut himself some slack. Cut back on flashing for cameras and selling self-confidence and handle his business and his body. To put things into perspective, Harper just became legal drinking age. It’s early in the game. He still has time to become the white Willie Mays, and I’d bet my 1968 “Bullet” Bob Gibson mint condition Topps card that he’ll flirt with that level some day. But the exaggerative scouts, groupies, social media magnets and calculated baseball writers in search of a new, clean MLB hero can’t help him. Baseball’s writing Harper’s destiny now.