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Post-hype, Harper emerges as complete package

In third season at just 21, Nationals star outfielder on verge of breakout @RichardJustice

VIERA, Fla. -- Bryce Harper is about to have a monstrous season, and remember you heard it here first.

You haven't forgotten Bryce Harper, have you?

"Time flies, doesn't it?" Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond said.

Yes, indeed. Two short years ago, we showed up at Spring Training to watch Harper's every swing and to record his every word. Incidentally, his batting practices are still incredible displays of power and quickness. Scouts who've seen thousands of games still marvel at the show Harper puts on.

Back to two years ago. Harper was 19 years old. He'd passed every test in the Minor Leagues. Back then, the only question was when the Nats would promote Harper to the big leagues.

Answer: April 28, 2012. Harper started in left field that night at Dodger Stadium, batted seventh and had a seventh-inning double off Chad Billingsley.

Cue the circus.

When Harper played softball on the National Mall, it became big news. When an opposing pitcher, Cole Hamels, plunked him for no apparent reason, it became even bigger news.

So did pretty much everything else Harper did.

Amid the hype, two defining story lines emerged.

Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo had constructed a model organization, and part of that model was having a tremendous core of veteran leadership. One reason it was safe for Rizzo to fast-track Harper through the Minor Leagues was because he knew his veterans -- Ryan Zimmerman, Adam LaRoche, Jayson Werth, etc. -- would wrap their collective arms around him.

More important, they would keep the atmosphere as normal as possible. If any team could make a 19-year-old wunderkind feel normal, it was this one. Everyone wanted a piece of Harper, but the Nats made sure that the bottom line was winning games. In the end, nothing else mattered.

"He's a big kid," Desmond said. "He's passionate. He wants to be older than what he is. He's 21. He's ready to be 28. He's ready for it. Time can't fly by fast enough."

Here's the other part of the Bryce Harper story, the one that sometimes gets lost, especially now with the emergence of Mike Trout and a bunch of other kid players. The Nationals got it right with Harper. Exactly right.

Harper was the 17-year-old No. 1 pick of the 2010 Draft because he had otherworldly talents. Strip everything else away, and he is right on track to be everything the Nats hoped he'd be.

"He's a special talent," Nationals manager Matt Williams said, "and he's looking forward to taking that next step to turn all that talent into that MVP candidate that everybody expects him to be. That expectation was there at 19, and that's a good thing.

"He's done all these things at a younger age than anyone else has done all these things. We still have to remember he's 21. He's a pretty special 21-year-old. We'll try to help him get to where he wants to go."

Last summer, Harper was the youngest National League All-Star starter in history at 20. He won the NL Rookie of the Year Award in 2012, and he and Tony Conigliaro are the only big leaguers with a pair of 20-homer seasons before their 21st birthday.

Harper may have had some growing up to do, but didn't we all at 19?

"What we've seen this year is a much more mature Major League player," Rizzo said. "He's not Bryce Harper the cover boy or Bryce Harper the prospect. He's Bryce Harper the middle-of-the-order hitter, Major League player. I think his teammates see him that way now. I think he sees himself that way.

"I've seen a different persona about him. He really takes care of business. He knows now it's a long season, a grinding season. His goal is to play 162 games, and if he does that, he feels he'll put up the numbers that he wants."

Harper has played 257 career games and has a .272 batting average with 42 home runs and an .834 on-base-plus slugging. Those are very, very solid numbers. If he's occasionally overlooked, that's because Trout has flown off the charts with two seasons that have established him as the best player on earth.

If Harper is fueled by any desire to take the best-player-in-the-game label from Trout, he won't say it.

"Trout's a great player," Harper said. "He's on the West Coast. I'm on the East Coast. I could care less what he's doing. I'm just going to do what I need to do to help my team win and get that ring."

Harper may not be simply saying what he's supposed to say. Some of the people who know him best, including Rizzo, believe Harper has always been driven to be the best he can be and that the things out of his control simply don't matter all that much.

"I think he's fueled by himself," Rizzo said. "He's fueled by being the best player he can be. He wants to be the best. I think that's what fuels him more than any comparison with another player."

Harper missed 31 games last season with a left knee that apparently ached all season long and required surgery in the offseason. He showed up this spring healthy and confident. If Harper can hit .274 on a bad knee, think what he can do with good health.

"I'm excited," he said. "I'm very excited to come into a year when my body feels great. My knee is 100 percent. It's nice to be able to hit with no pain and be able to play the game I love."

Harper's first two seasons are a testament to his enormous talent that he did more than just hold on. He contributed to winning teams. Now the world is about to see the finished product, and for Bryce Harper, after just the little bit we've seen of him, that's a huge statement.

"I just try to come out here and enjoy it every single day," Harper said. "I love coming out and playing with this game. We've got a great organization. We've got a great team. I know when I come into this clubhouse, I'm going to laugh, I'm going to smile, I'm going to have fun. That's the name of the game."

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.

Washington Nationals, Bryce Harper