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02/09/12 11:46 AM EST

Fascinating Harper should start year in Minors

Patience is the best course for phenom and the Nationals

Purely for curiosity considerations, one could be forgiven for wanting to see Bryce Harper, the No. 2 prospect in baseball, in a Washington Nationals uniform on Opening Day.

Harper is a 19-year-old power-hitting prodigy with a cannon for an arm and a level of confidence that borders on cockiness. As he told my colleague Bill Ladson, he wants to have a career like Joe Namath's -- flamboyance off the field, success on it.

"He had that city life and everything like that," Harper said of Broadway Joe, "but he was one of the best quarterbacks to play the game."

Hey, we're rooting for you, Bryce. Maybe at some point you can even guarantee a victory over the Baltimore ... Orioles.

This kid is a source of fascination and captivation. From the time Harper became a household name a few years back, when Sports Illustrated put him on its cover and labeled him "Baseball's Chosen One," a game that could always use another elite-level star has been waiting to be wowed by the wunderkind.

But if the Nationals are smart, they'll make us wait a little while longer.

Lately, the Nats have expressed surprising open-mindedness toward the idea of Harper breaking camp as the starting right fielder on the big league club this year. This is a direct result of the pleadings of manager Davey Johnson, who in 1984 convinced Mets general manager Frank Cashen to put 19-year-old Dwight Gooden on the Major League team, then watched Gooden win 17 games as a big league rookie with no previous regular-season experience at the Double-A or Triple-A levels.

Johnson hasn't come right out and said it, but he's certainly implied a belief that Harper can make a similar ascent with similarly impactful results.

"I don't look at him age-wise like you probably should," Johnson said recently. "But I think he's definitely going to make the spring very interesting ... I said in the spring [last year], guys were asking me, 'When do you think Harper is going to get there?' I said, 'I think he's going to have quality at-bats in the big leagues when he's 19. So ... he's 19.'"

Johnson has apparently warmed general manager Mike Rizzo to the idea of giving Harper an honest shot at a job out of Spring Training.

"If [Harper] gives us the best chance to win," Rizzo told CBS Sports, "and [we] feel he's fully prepared to play in the big leagues, he'll make the team."

All this serves to add even more allure to a Nationals team that could very well take that step into National League East contention in 2012. They've added Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson to a rotation that will feature a healthy Stephen Strasburg. Brad Lidge has joined a solid bullpen. Those improvements to the pitching staff help offset (but don't completely dismiss) concerns about health on the infield corners (Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche played a combined 144 games last year) and the albatross that is the Jayson Werth contract.

The Nats are an interesting team, all right, and they'll become exponentially more interesting the day Harper makes his much-anticipated debut.

We must remember, though, what a difficult transition that is. We must also remember the financial ramifications of prospect promotion.

First and foremost, the Nationals would be foolish to use the Grapefruit League as any sort of gauge of Harper's preparedness for that promotion. It's a good time to offer instruction and make tweaks to mechanics, sure, but it's an awful environment to evaluate results, what with the proliferation of guys wearing No. 76 and all.

That Harper hit .389 in his first big league camp a year ago is indicative of, well, absolutely nothing. He didn't make a single start, never appeared earlier than the fifth inning, and his seven hits came off of (please, hold your applause until all the names have been announced) Pedro Beato, Romulo Sanchez, Pat Urckfitz, Jorge De Leon, Brian Sanches, Ross Wolf and Cesar Carrillo.

This year, we'll undoubtedly see much more of Harper and in much more "meaningful" spring situations (but "meaningful" is, of course, a relative term here). Whether he rakes or reels will prove nothing, positive or negative.

No, Harper needs real time in the real grind that is a professional season. He's played just 37 games above the Class A level, and his first full season was cut short by a hamstring injury suffered in early August. It's not merely about some clichéd notion of "paying your dues"; it's also about, you know, proving you can hit a big league caliber breaking ball. Harper has yet to face one.

And what of those dues? Would Harper be embraced in his own clubhouse if promoted prematurely, or would he face backlash from guys who breathed in the bus fumes that line the long road to the Majors?

Yes, yes, I'm well aware that Ken Griffey Jr. played just 18 games above Class A before seizing the Mariners' Opening Day center-field job in 1989, and he turned out all right.

But the exposure and attention Harper has already received is without precedent, and you can rest assured it will make him a focal point of every scouting report of the opponent and much scrutiny in his own dugout. It's going to take the utmost maturity, both in terms of performance and perspective, to be ready for the top level.

And while all the above is reason enough for the Nats to exercise patience with Harper, there is, naturally, financial motivation attached to this, as well. The Super Two arbitration qualification was already a major monetary consideration in such matters, and it has been expanded in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Perhaps that consideration gets thrown out the window come May, if the Nationals are in the hunt and Harper is tearing up Triple-A. But to start his clock based on some Grapefruit League luster would be awfully presumptuous.

When Harper makes his move to the Majors, it's going to force the Nats to make some other moves on the field. As it stands, either Werth would have to slide over to center (a risky defensive arrangement) or LaRoche would have to slide over to another organization, allowing Werth to move to left and Michael Morse to move to first.

Better, in the short-term, to give Harper that much-needed time in Triple-A, leave Werth, LaRoche (whose trade value is negligible until he proves he's adequately recovered from last season's injury woes) and Morse where they are and let veteran retreads Mike Cameron and Rick Ankiel form a stopgap (albeit unsexy) platoon in center.

None of this is a knock on Harper. His time is coming. Fast. In fact, by year's end, it's conceivable that he will have become just the 17th player in history, according to baseball-reference.com, to log 100 games played in a single season before his 20th birthday. We're talking about a premier prospect here.

In the immediate, the Nationals have every right and every reason to dangle this idea of Harper breaking camp with the big leaguers. It's meaningful motivation not just for Harper but those he'll be competing against.

But when Opening Day arrives, Harper should slot into his rightful spot in the lineup.

The Triple-A Syracuse lineup.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.