David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
CINCINNATI - Bryce Harper knows a lot about numbers. And probably the least important to him, as far as making an impact in the majors, is age.
The precocious Harper, at 22, is perhaps the brightest of this year's All-Stars, a group that features 20 players 25 or under among its total of 76, for a staggering 26 percent of the combined roster.
In any other year, that's a Futures Game, not the Midsummer Classic itself. But worrying about development, or the bumps and bruises of taking off the training wheels too early, seems so 2014 these days.
Not only is youth being served, it's sitting at the head of the table. And Harper, who made his debut at 19, relished the chance to take his hacks in the majors before he could order a beer.
"What I went through, mentally it can really be a grind," he said Monday. "But if you're ready for it, why wait? I think these [young] guys now are taking the game by storm a little bit."
Harper was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 draft, the same one that produced Matt Harvey at No. 8, and played only 130 minor-league games, including 21 for Triple-A Syracuse, before getting called up by the Nationals two years later. At the time of his promotion, Harper was hitting .243 in 74 at-bats for Syracuse. He finished the season with a .270/.340/.477 slash line, 22 homers and 59 RBIs in 139 games with the Nationals.
Obviously, few players are Bryce Harper. But talent is talent, to varying degrees, and he's a timely example to present when considering the recent case of someone like Michael Conforto.
As we're seeing around baseball, the future is now, and taking a risk with a promising young player no longer is the gamble it once seemed to be.
When we brought up the Conforto scenario Monday with a talent evaluator, he thought it was a no-brainer for the Mets to give the kid a shot. From the start, Conforto already was "an advanced college hitter" at Oregon State, he said. And now, even at 22 -- with only 125 minor-league games under his belt -- Conforto is showing the kind of ability that indicates he's ready to inflict damage in the majors.
"He's better than the other [trade] options out there," the person said.
Conforto is only five months younger than Harper. Mike Trout, Manny Machado, Kris Bryant and Joc Pederson, all 23, are huge components of contending teams. Could Conforto be the next one?
Going by the trend, we'd say the odds are looking better and better that he would help.
"I remember my first All-Star Game in '05, I was one of the young guys at 25," Mark Teixeira said Monday. "The veterans were Manny Ramirez, Ichiro, Alex Rodriguez, well into their careers, really established.
"I look around this room now, there's a bunch of young guys, which is really impressive. It's just great to see because baseball needs young talent."
When it comes to restocking the sport, with the next generation of marketable faces, sure. And that -- not securing home-field advantage, which was established as a vehicle to drive TV ratings for what will always be an exhibition -- is what the All-Star Game is about.
We're more interested in how these elite youngsters can contribute at the highest level, as the Mets are weighing with Conforto. The Yankees did it with Rob Refsnyder, 24, promoting him last weekend and having him debut against Boston (he homered and singled on Sunday).
If the talent is there, and this is more about the mental hurdles, we have the sense the Mets might be OK putting their faith in Conforto. "I welcome the challenge," he said Sunday. "I like being pushed, that's how I've always been. I have no control over [a promotion] except for the way I play and the way I show up every day."
That type of attitude has worked out well for Harper, who in the past four years has grown into a nearly unstoppable force at the plate this season (26 homers, 1.168 OPS). And we'd bet that mindset played a role in getting the rest of the 25-and-under brigade to the majors a bit faster than anyone expected, too.