The Washington Nationals did not let Bryce Harper start 2012 with the parent club as they were afraid the then 19 year old would struggle early and didn’t want him to do it under media scrutiny. After a season in which he was named NL Rookie of the Year, Harper will not be sent to AAA Syracuse at the start of this season and the press will be waiting.
So what happens if Harper does struggle early? Will the Nationals try to shield him from the media? Will Harper go into a shell and suffer from the so called sophomore jinx?
Despite the endorsement of manager Davey Johnson, Washington brass felt it was better if Harper began 2012 in the minors. As they expected, Harper began the season slowly and the press did keep tabs on him. This did not stop Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo from bringing Harper up at the end of April. The rookie had a solid debut series against the Los Angeles Dodgers and went from there.
If Harper gets off to a slow start this season, he will do it in MLB not AAA. With the Jackie Robinson Award on his resume, Harper will be scrutinized by everyone from ESPN to MLB Network from opening day to October. He has already been on the cover of ‘Sports Illustrated’. The media was there last season at AAA, but Harper was not in the big time and had not made a professional name. He has now and the 24/7 media cycle can’t wait to report on his successes and failures.
Many players get off to slow starts in April. When hall of fame first baseman Eddie Murray was with the Baltimore Orioles, he was a notoriously slow starter. People who follow baseball know that each player has ups and downs during the season. Harper’s downs happen to occur at the beginning. The Nationals know this and will let him work his way into form just as Harper always has.
However, the local and national media will be quick to point out everything that Harper does wrong. They will get on him when he strikes out with runners in scoring position. They will criticize him as he makes the adjustment to playing left field. Harper will be expected to do great things right away and any signs of chinks in his armor (one he has helped to create) will be over analyzed from sun up to sun down.
It is doubtful that Harper will go into a shell if he struggles early. He has never been one to back down from anything and takes challenges head on. Harper has been grooming for his pro baseball life since childhood. He is still maturing but has good baseball sense when it comes to what is happening around him.
The shield of the minor leagues will not be there for Harper this season or ever again. He will be on someone’s opening day roster until his career comes to an end. From here on, the struggles of April will be there for everyone to see and this season will be the most scrutinized start of Harper’s career.