Jon Heyman
Friday February 25th, 2011

VIERA, Fla. -- Word going around camp is that 18-year-old phenom Bryce Harper will not be starting the season with the Nationals and is very unlikely to make his big-league debut until he is 19 next year.

"I have no idea,'' says Harper when asked about his chances to play in the bigs this season. "I am leaving that to a higher power.''

Harper, the No. 1 overall pick in last year's draft, didn't say whether he meant Nationals manager Jim Riggleman or GM Mike Rizzo, or someone even higher than that. But the power everyone talks around here belongs to Harper, a lefthanded batter with strength scouts say is "off the charts.''

Harper took a few cuts out on the back fields here Friday, and while he hit a few shots, he didn't hit any that required a tape measure. Of course, it was windy and is also early. Harper's power has played at every level so far, including junior college and the Arizona Fall League, and he is viewed as a once-in-a-generation power hitter.

But he seems to be a long shot to become the first player to reach the big leagues at age 18 since Alex Rodriguez with Seattle in 1994. Riggleman called the chances of Harper playing for the Nationals this year "infinitesimal'' though he suggested next year could be the right timetable. Rizzo initially said it wouldn't happen this year, but agreed that Riggleman's characterization of "infinitesimal'' was probably fair.

As Riggleman pointed out, Stephen Strasburg, the team's pitching phenom and like Harper a No. 1 overall pick, made his professional debut last year at Double-A Harrisburg before making the jump to Triple-A Syracuse and ultimately Washington, and he had three years of Division I baseball under his belt, as well as international experience. Early word is that Harper may begin at A-ball, with Double-A Harrisburg an outside possibility. But first he will get a few at-bats here, starting Monday when Riggleman promises a plate appearance at Port St. Lucie vs. the Mets.

In the meantime, Harper's plan is to disregard the hype and be himself (Nationals veteran Ivan Rodriguez told him, "Don't change anything.'') "I don't really pay attention (to all that's being said),'' Harper said. "I just play like I know how to play.'' He said his goal is to "get a couple base hits every day,'' and to "just try to impress every day."

Perhaps the most impressive trait for the Las Vegas native is his light-tower power. "He's got pop,'' Rodriguez said, succinctly. It is especially noticeable on Harper's long drives the opposite way, to left and left-centerfield.

It is that power that caused the Nationals to make the decision shortly after drafting him to turn him into an outfielder, which isn't as demanding as his original position of catcher and allows him to concentrate more on his best skill, which is hitting. The positional switch will also enable him to reach the majors sooner, though the more realistic timetable would still be next year.

Harper is said by one scout to have an excellent arm (though not in the category of outfield teammate Rick Ankiel, who was once a pitching phenom) and speed that is "a tick above average.'' The one question still is going to be the defense, said a scout, though it doesn't appear to be a major issue.

Harper said he loves the outfield so far. "It's been great ... a lot of fun,'' he said. "There's a feeling of being energized every single day. I like the running and diving. That's the kind of guy I am. I like getting dirty ... And it allows me to worry about hitting. And that's what I like.''

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