Harper's ankle bears weight of speculation

March 26, 2011|By BOB PARASILITI |
  • The Washington Nationals optioned Bryce Harper, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2010 draft, to the Hagerstown Suns on Saturday.
Associated Press

HAGERSTOWN — He owns one of the most talked about legs ever owned by a man.

Harper, the Washington Nationals’ and Major League Baseball’s top selection in the 2010 amateur draft, sprained his ankle on Monday. By Tuesday, word and speculation spread about his availability to make his debut as a member of the Hagerstown Suns.

“He is day-to-day,” said Doug Harris, the Nationals’ player development director. “It is a concern, but we are keeping our arms wrapped around it and we keep monitoring it.”

Harper has the honor of playing in a bowl game, it’s just not the one most chosen by athletes.

“Ever since he has been down here, he’s living in a fishbowl,” Harris said. “If it was any other player who sprained his ankle, it would be flying under the radar.”

But it is Bryce Harper, who has been anointed the Nationals’ “next best thing” after the joyride the franchise enjoyed with pitcher Stephen Strasburg last season. The pair has combined to signify the future of a struggling franchise on the rise.

For now, Harper is nursing the left ankle he sprained by stepping on first base awkwardly while trying to leg out a hit in an intrasquad game. Strasburg was just placed on the 60-day disabled list while he recovers from Tommy John elbow surgery.

All circumstances put the spotlight on Harper, who is scheduled to start the season as a member of the Suns. Thanks to the recent events, when that will happen has become a valid question.

“We are happy with the progress of the injury,” Harris said. “Everyone in the course of a long season gets nicks and injuries and this falls into that category.”

The day-to-day status puts some early Harper-watching activities in jeopardy.

He will probably be a question mark when the Suns host the Harrisburg Senators, Washington’s Double-A affiliate, in an exhibition game on April 5.

The Washington Post reported earlier this week that Harper may not be ready to play in Hagerstown’s season-opener on April 7, when the Suns travel to meet the Rome (Ga.) Braves. Yet, several outlets reported Harper took batting  practice on Friday and is back on target to start the Suns’ opener.

Hagerstown opens the home season April 15 against Lakewood.

The fishbowl mentality also has kicked up a lot of debate about where Harper should be starting his career. Fans, bloggers and columnist alike all think playing for the Suns is too low of a beginning for a No. 1 overall pick.

Yet, Harris and the Nationals think it is a good fit because Harper has time on his side.

“He’s only 18,” Harris said. “This is just our chance to get in there and start the development process. He is being given the chance to play every day and to get to bat three, four or five times a game.”

Harris said the start with the Suns will also give Harper a taste of baseball life with the pace and travel that goes with the season, along with playing when tired, living with teammates and dealing with the day-to-day feelings that go with success and failure.

On the field, Harper has done nothing to disappoint.

“Watching him here, there is nothing really different,” Harris said. “He is very talented. He swings the bat well. He can do a lot of things that can change the outcome of a game.”

The Nationals went through a similar scenario with Strasburg last season. The pitcher was the No. 1 overall selection in the 2009 draft and many thought he should have been in Washington from the first day. Washington elected to start Strasburg in Harrisburg and Triple-A Syracuse before bring him to the Nationals in June.

But Strasburg was 23 and just out of college. Harper is only 18 and leaving junior college after earning his GED. The Nationals know there is room — and time — for development before Harper reaches the big time.

“All we are trying to do now is lay the foundation before we hang the doors and the chandelier,” Harris said.

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