PHOENIX -- Nationals phenom Bryce Harper's batting practice before Sunday afternoon's Futures Game produced a predictable array of frozen-rope liners and roof-scraping bombs, one of which helpfully landed (for measurement's sake) near a 420-foot marker emblazoned on the right-centerfield concourse in front of the distant Chase Field Diamond Club.
Upon stepping out of the cage in between rounds, Harper raved to U.S. team coach Rick Sweet about how hard the wood is in his Marucci bat. Sweet grabbed the barrel but reminded the slugger that he, not his physical tool, did most of the work.
Indeed, the swing of the man was more responsible for the blast than the lumber in his hands. There's only so much one can glean from a single-game sample size, but if there's anything to take away from Harper's disappointing performance in the Futures Game -- he went 0 for 4, striking out twice and hitting two grounders to the first baseman as the U.S. team beat the World Team 6-4 -- it's that he can be a superstar when he harnesses his own innate tools.
If you need a refresher course on the particulars, Harper -- who turns 19 in October -- was a
Part of the beauty of the Futures Game is context. Placing prospects in a major league stadium removes a little of the guessing game. The players are swinging with major league fences and are fielding on a major league field without the fear of minor league bad hops. On Sunday, Chase Field provided big-league frame of reference for Harper's historic power through his BP home runs and his roughly 320-foot throw home to (unsuccessfully) try and throw out a runner at the plate, even if he admitted afterwards he was just "showing off."
In other words, what Harper still showed on the day were his first-rate tools, even if he failed to use them in a way that made a difference in the outcome. It was, however, just one game. Players are allowed to have a bad game now and again, especially when facing a barrage of the game's best international pitching prospects, opposing the Braves' Julio Teheran, Mariners lefty James Paxton, Blue Jays' Henderson Alvarez and the Royals' Kelvin Herrera. Part of why Harper more than other toolsy players is on a major league fast-track is his in-game maturity: he takes walks and more often than not makes the smart throw.
The Nationals have chosen to be conservative with the precocious 18-year-old. Washington has said they won't call up Harper to the majors this year, but a promotion at any time in 2012 would put him in the big leagues before his 20th birthday, joining a group of teenage debuts that includes Felix Hernandez, Justin Upton, B.J. Upton, Alex Rodriguez and, most recently, Mike Trout.
"I'm just going to let them make their decisions," Harper said. "[General manager] Mike Rizzo does a great job with everything."
For now Harper has had to settle for his promotion to Double A, after reportedly admitting he was not all that focused in his last few weeks in Class A.
"It feels good to be called up, refocus and have that pressure," he said. "I feel good up there."
That's the right thing to say, and Harper is smart enough to say it. But it's not all the way "up there" -- like baseball's other premier teenage outfielder.
Unfortunately for the sake of Sunday's exhibition, the Angels promoted 19-year-old Trout late Thursday night -- he went 1-for-9 with a walk in his first three big-league games -- which deprived the Futures Game of featuring the sport's top two prospects sharing the same outfield, alongside another top-10 blue-chip player, Wil Myers of the Royals. Harper shrugged off a question about comparing himself to Trout.
"I can't think about anything like that," Harper said. "Like I said, I just go out there and play like I can. Whatever happened for Mike Trout is a great thing for him."
Along with Harper's Herculean achievements has come increased scrutiny. He is an unabashed star. MLB Network and ESPN cameras followed his every pregame swing in the cage and autograph along the sidelines. But such attention has also magnified a few perceived lapses in sportsmanship: getting ejected from a junior college World Series game and blowing a kiss to a pitcher he homered off, most notably.
But he was sufficiently endearing in his tenure during last year's Arizona Fall League that as B.P. ended, a woman caught his attention and over the dugout slid three trays of foil-wrapped brownies to Harper. The gift-giver, Judy from Phoenix, fashions herself the brownie-baking grandmother of the AFL's Scottsdale team. She collects broken bats from the players and furnishes them with baked goods -- "bats for brownies," she lovingly calls the swaps, noting that the key to the best treats are that they're "chewy but done."
"These guys need a grandmother no matter what their batting average is," Judy said.
Harper is young with some growing up to do on the field, but there's still time: He's 18 and won't be rushed to the majors this year. That'll change next year. For today, at least he has his brownies.