Nationals' Bryce Harper eager to improve upon fine rookie year

Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper waits for a

Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper waits for a pitch during batting practice in a spring training workout in Viera, Fla. (Feb. 17, 2013) (Credit: AP)

VIERA, Fla.

Unlike 2012, if the Washington Nationals win it all in 2013, they won't be coming out of leftfield -- although that's where one of their youngest, most talented and most determined components will ply his trade.

History indicates that Bryce Harper's road might have a few bumps, but the end results are likely to be positive as he shifts from centerfield to left.

Witness his first spring training game against the Mets on Saturday. Harper bobbled a third-inning line drive hit by Kirk Nieuwenhuis but stuck with it, turning a potential misplay into a juggling catch and instant highlight-reel material.

"I caught it, so I don't care. Whatever, it's an out," said Harper, who at 20 is all about the bottom line as he prepares for his second major-league season. He's bulked up, more experienced and possibly on the verge of surpassing his Rookie of the Year numbers that helped carry the Nationals to the NL East title.

But the Nationals wound up an out away from advancing to the National League Championship Series, and Harper's own performance, though historic for a 19-year-old, left him thirsting for more.

"I want a World Series. That's what I've been looking at," he said. "The World Series is the biggest thing on my mind, and if I can play well, I can help my team get there."

To that end, Harper, who hit 22 homers as a rookie, has added 10 to 15 pounds of muscle and a world of big-league experience.

Harper's 57 extra-base hits and 254 total bases were the most ever by a player younger than 20. No teenager in the last 45 years scored as many runs (98) or posted a higher OPS (.817).

More recently, Alex Rodriguez and Mike Trout, last year's AL Rookie of the Year, were 20 when they made the quantum leap, maturing into .300 hitters with 30 homers in the major leagues.

40-40 player?

Nationals brass always has believed that Harper, who stole 18 bases last season, can be a 30-30 man.

"I think he's almost a 40-40 guy," said teammate Tyler Moore, who played alongside Harper in the minors. "He's got all the tools. He's a leader. We just want to see him succeed."

Manager Davey Johnson seems to have no doubt that Harper will do just that. "My main concern is having him stay happy and having fun so that he can express his talent," Johnson said. "I think he's a hard worker and in a good frame of mind. But he's still in the learning process."

Part of that process was coping with adversity last season. Harper, hitting .307 on June 12, went into a prolonged slump. A 3-for-32 drought dropped his average to .245 on Aug. 15, but he bounced back to finish the season at .270.

"He started good and he finished good," Johnson said. "That's impressive for a youngster. He was really swinging the bat good during our playoff fight. This year, I expect him to be more relaxed and enjoying it more."

Harper is intent upon improving all phases of his game.

"You can always get better in everything you do," said Harper, whose move to leftfield will accommodate Washington's new centerfielder and leadoff hitter, former Twin Denard Span. "Whether it's hitting, baserunning, outfield. I don't think I've reached my full potential. I'm looking forward to trying to better myself every day."

"You can't teach instincts," said Span, 29, who is impressed with his new outfield partner's tools and attitude. "I think about when I was 20 and how mature he is for his age. I don't think too many guys could be able to handle what he's handled at such a young age. And I don't think he's tapped into his man strength."

Work in progress

General manager Mike Rizzo understands Harper is a work in progress.

He responded positively at times last season -- such as when he stole home after being hit in the back by the Phillies' Cole Hamels earlier that inning. But controlling his zeal and sometimes brash approach might be as important as refining his batting eye.

There was the incident in Cincinnati in which he whacked his bat against the wall of the clubhouse tunnel and it bounced back, creating a 10-stitch gash above his left eye. But that response to an 0-for-5 night was the exception, not the norm.

"His professionalism and the way he's conducted himself, on and off the field, was great to see last year," Rizzo said. "He has extremely high expectations for himself. Bryce just needs to make the normal progression. The more pitches he sees, the more experience he gets, the better he's going to turn out."

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