Is Harper ready for bigs?

If phenom can answer in affirmative Nats could be going places

Bryce Harper isn't looking to get a little more experience and then go back to the Eastern League. He's coming to spring training planning to leave Florida on the Nationals' flight to Chicago, where they will open the season.

And in Harper's mind, and the opinion of the scouts that have seen him play since he was in Little League, that will be only the beginning.

"He loves being a Washington National,'' said general manager Mike Rizzo. "He wants to go into the Hall of Fame with a Washington Nationals hat on. He wants to win championships and that sort of thing. That's who he is."

Patience is a difficult thing when you're 19 and have known only success. So Harper sees no reason why manager Davey Johnson can't make Jayson Werth the center fielder and award him right field, even if incumbent center fielder Roger Bernadina has been paying his dues for a decade.

Johnson has expressed open-mindedness about the teenage phenom, who played 134 games in his first pro season, ending with a 25-game tear through the Arizona Fall League. The Nationals are taking themselves seriously after trading for Gio Gonzalez and signing Edwin Jackson to a one-year contract. They believe they can shock the National League East with strong seasons from Ryan Zimmerman, Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg and catcher Wilson Ramos.

Can Harper do enough in spring training to be at Wrigley Field on April 5?

That's among the nine biggest reasons spring training matters. The others:

2. How will the Cardinals carry on without Tony La Russa, Albert Pujols and pitching coach Dave Duncan?

The World Series champions don't really get a proper chance to bask in the glory of Game 6 because of the offseason turnover among key pieces.

Mike Matheny, who never has managed, replaced La Russa, who won 2,728 regular-season games and earned three World Series rings. Lance Berkman moves from right field to first base as a stop-gap replacement for Pujols, with Carlos Beltran added to the lineup. Beltran, more than Berkman, signed on to bear a huge load.

3. Will the real Joe Mauer step up?

The Twins catcher, a three-time batting champ, is still more than a year away from his 30th birthday but has been revealed to have an old man's body the last couple of seasons. Manager Ron Gardenhire says that "if Mauer's there, he's our catcher,'' but added to that "ad-libbing'' remains a possibility. Justin Morneau, a victim of concussion syndrome, is again 1A on the list of Twins' concerns.

Other teams are anxious to see how Adam Wainwright, Buster Posey, Jake Peavy, Jair Jurrjens, Ryan Howard, Carl Crawford, Grady Sizemore, Joba Chamberlain and Strasburg look as they return from recent injuries.

4. Were Cubans Yoenis Cespedes and Aroldis Chapman worth the hype (not to mention the combined $66.25 million)?

Cespedes, a power-hitting center fielder, was an inspired signing by the Athletics, giving their fans a player in his prime who should be fun to watch.

This is the third year of Chapman's six-year deal with the Reds, and he's getting a legitimate shot to start. His wildness remains a concern but he and newcomer Mat Latos could join a healthy Johnny Cueto to give Dusty Baker a 1-2-3 combination like Mark Prior, Kerry Wood and Carlos Zambrano, who he almost rode to the 2003 World Series.

5. Motivated and out of Chicago, will Zambrano make Ozzie Guillen look smart for recommending the Marlins trade for him?

The Cubs were right in getting rid of him -- even though they will pay him $16.45 million -- but Marlins president/baseball ops Larry Beinfest took a risk in sending Chris Volstad to the Cubs for him.

Guillen also must deal with any complications that arise in moving Hanley Ramirez to third base to accommodate Jose Reyes, though Ramirez assured fans this week he's OK with the move.



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