Nationals' Bryce Harper is ahead of the curve

Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals poses for

Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals poses for a portrait during photo day at Space Coast Stadium on Feb. 23, 2014 in Viera, Florida. (Credit: Getty Images / Rob Carr)

VIERA, Fla. - When he took the job, first-year Nationals manager Matt Williams knew that Bryce Harper could hit the ball a country mile, throw a ball through a brick wall and was just as likely to run through one in the outfield.

What Williams didn't know was how communicative or cerebral Harper -- looking fit after offseason knee surgery -- would be.

"He talks more than I thought he would," said Williams, only a week into his firsthand evaluation of Harper. "He comes into the coaches' room, sits down and talks the game.

"I think he's a great student of the game, which is refreshing. It's easy for a young player to [drift] into his own world . . . especially somebody like him."

For the two years that Harper has been in the majors, and long before he was ever drafted No. 1 overall, Harper was the center of attention -- a youthful phenom enveloped in media scrutiny, particularly for his carefree attitude on the field.

"That's kind of the way I've played my whole life," said Harper, the 2012 National League Rookie of the Year, whose promising 2013 season was short-circuited by a knee injury suffered last May when he slammed into the fence at Dodger Stadium.

Now, at 21, he's come to understand there is a fine line between wreaking havoc and wrecking oneself in the process.

"I'm going to try to be a little smarter," said Harper, who still batted .274 and was third among NL outfielders with 13 assists, despite playing in only 118 games last season. "If we're up 7-0, then I don't need to make any spectacular plays. I need to try to stay in the lineup every single day."

Harper said the knee feels fine thanks to a rehab routine of bicycling and weights. He said his immediate goal in terms of numbers is playing 150-160 games this year. The rest of the numbers -- the homers, the steals, the runs scored -- will accumulate naturally.

"I pride myself on getting on base," said Harper, who homered twice on Opening Day last season and has 42 homers and 29 steals in 257 games. "My walk to strikeout ratio [74/135] has been pretty good the last two years. Get on base, then try to take that extra bag. That's my game."

Williams already appreciates that it's not all about the numbers or the quest for personal attention for Harper.

"He really understands the exterior [world] around him," Williams said. "He wants to learn, wants to get better. So, that's really nice. We've talked more than I'd anticipated us talking because he's constantly asking questions -- not only of me but the whole staff."

Harper has a chance to become the crown jewel of what could be a terrific outfield for the Nationals. With 20-steal man Denard Span in center and Jayson Werth, coming off a stellar season in right, it's arguably the best in the NL East.

"We've got a chance to be one of the best outfields in baseball," said Werth, who batted .318 with 25 homers last season. "We got a good feel for each other last year.

"Bryce is a dynamic player. He's still learning his position, but he has a lot of upside. He'll probably be playing this game for a long time, so, right now, we're trying to keep it simple for him."

Harper, who was drafted as a catcher, has an arm that's ideally suited to rightfield. He's played all three outfield positions for Washington, but this year, with Werth manning right, Williams is hoping for stability in his lineup.

"I like the construction of our outfield," Williams said. "I think Jayson is a fantastic rightfielder, Denard's phenomenal in center and Bryce is pretty special in left. I would like for him to concentrate on playing leftfield for now."

Williams' reputation for intensity in some ways mirrors Harper's. "The manager is a very fiery guy," Harper said. "It's a lot of fun to come into the clubhouse and be with a guy who wants to work hard every single day."

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