Harper to start sea­son with Triple-a Syra­cuse

The Washington Times Daily - - Weather - BY AMANDA COMAK

VIERA, FLA. | The Washington Na­tion­als know what they have in Bryce Harper.

Since they took him No. 1 over­all in the 2010 draft, Harper has proved to be the phe­nom he was la­beled as at age 15. They know how much tal­ent he pos­sesses, how much fire he has for the game — and how greatly he could help this team get where it wants to go.

But it was for those rea­sons and more that they sent Harper to the mi­nor leagues Sun­day, op­tion­ing the 19-yearold out­fielder to Triple-a Syra­cuse and bring­ing to a close one of the Na­tion­als’ big­gest sto­ry­lines this spring.

Af­ter a rel­a­tively drama-free camp for the oft-con­tro­ver­sial teen, Harper won’t be head­ing north with the Na­tion­als when they break camp. In­stead, he’ll hit the only level of the mi­nor leagues he had yet to visit, and he’ll work on be­com­ing an ev­ery­day cen­ter fielder at the ma­jor league level. He’ll en­sure, they hope, that when he gets to the ma­jors it

ging down to first base and then let­ting a team­mate take it from there. In what re­mains of spring train­ing, he sim­ply has to find a way to get healthy, to be the slick-field­ing, power-hit­ting first base­man the Na­tion­als en­vi­sioned when they signed him as a free agent last Jan­uary. Let’s face it, it’s go­ing to be hard for the Nats to go where they want to go if he isn’t con­tribut­ing his usual 25 homers, 85 RBI and great glove work.

“It’s been crazy — since Day 1 here, re­ally, be­cause my shoul­der thing hap­pened so early in the spring last year,” Laroche said Sun­day. “And now I’ve got a lit­tle sprained foot. It’s ob­vi­ously part of a plan that’s a lot big­ger than what I had in mind.”

“The shoul­der thing,” a torn labrum, ended his 2011 sea­son in late May. He tried to play through it — and his num­bers (.172 bat­ting, .258 slug­ging) suf­fered ac­cord­ingly — but it soon was ob­vi­ous he needed surgery. So he spent the rest of the year cheer­ing the ex­ploits of his re­place­ment, Michael Morse, who be­came a bona fide star.

You might think that would just add to Laroche’s de­spair. But no, he said, it made his ab­sence “a lit­tle eas­ier.” Why? Be­cause “it’s not like we had a gap­ing hole at first base. Mikey did a phe­nom­e­nal job, and it re­ally launched his ca­reer. He’s got con­fi­dence now. He knows he’s a great hit­ter and a great ballplayer, and he’s go­ing to be a huge part of this lineup this year.”

It’s this big-picture out­look that has en­abled Laroche, whose dura­bil­ity had never be­fore been an is­sue, to deal with the in­ter­minable wait­ing, with the tear-your-hair-out part of the re­hab process. Good thing, too, be­cause when you throw in the Na­tion­als’ mat­ing dance with Prince Fielder, who ended up with Detroit, it re­ally been the Year from Hell for the guy.

“I know when I’m healthy what I’m ca­pa­ble of do­ing,” he said. “I don’t have to worry that I’m go­ing to lose per­for­mance and not be able to do what I’ve done be­fore. It’s more of a pa­tience­type thing, es­pe­cially right now with this foot deal. The last thing I want to do is have it linger. So if that means I have to miss a few more games, I can live with that. I just want to get back to nor­mal, feel like I’m 21 years old again in­stead of feel­ing like I’m 50.”

He also knows what he might be miss­ing if an­other in­jury car­ries over into the sea­son. This Na­tion­als team, af­ter all, isn’t like its pre­de­ces­sors. The start­ing ro­ta­tion has never been deeper now that Stephen Stras­burg is back from Tommy John surgery and Gio Gon­za­lez and Ed­win Jack­son have been added to the mix. The ev­ery­day lineup, mean­while, should have con­sid­er­ably more pop with Morse back in left field, Ryan Zim­mer­man un­likely to miss 61 games again, Jayson Werth show­ing signs of reawak­en­ing and Laroche re­claim­ing the first base spot. Those four, along with Danny Espinosa, would give the Nats po­ten­tial 25-homer men. It’s a whole new world.

“We’re no longer down in the gut­ter of the NL East,” Laroche said. “There’s a lit­tle more pep around here know­ing that, hey, we’re a re­ally good team. We’ve still gotta go out there and do it, of course, but just go­ing in with that kind of con­fi­dence can win you ball­games.

So Adam Laroche will take some swings with the mi­nor lea­guers this week and try to get his left foot ready for Open­ing Day. If, as he said, the Na­tion­als are “no longer down in the gut­ter,” then it’s def­i­nitely time for him to climb out of the quick­sand.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

First base­man Adam Laroche signed a two-year, $16 mil­lion deal with the Na­tion­als be­fore last sea­son, but he ap­peared in just 43 games in 2011.

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