Johnson: Harper will compete for right field

DALLAS -- Back in spring training of 1984, Davey Johnson was the first-year manager of the New York Mets, a club that had lost 94 games the year before.

"I had to fight for a 19-year-old pitcher in New York," Johnson said Monday, retelling the story of how he had to lobby general manager Frank Cashen to put Dwight Gooden on the major league team. Gooden had spent 1983 in Class A ball, dominating the Carolina League, but he also made two starts for Johnson's Tidewater team in the Triple-A World Series.

Johnson knew what he had. He managed to convince Cashen that Gooden was ready. "And the rest is history," he said. Johnson didn't have to mention that Gooden won 17 games and led the National League with 276 strikeouts as a rookie. The Mets won 90 games behind their 19-year-old ace and two years later were World Series champions.

The Gooden recollection was brought up when asked about Bryce Harper's chances of becoming the Washington Nationals' Opening Day right fielder -- even though Harper doesn't turn 20 until October.

"The main thing: Do I think he can handle it mentally? I know he's done everything his whole life to succeed on the highest level," Johnson said. "I think this guy is pretty mature."

Harper hit a combined .297/.392/.501 in his first season in the minors. One of the youngest players in the Arizona Fall League, he hit .333 with six home runs in 93 at-bats.

With the Mets, Johnson successfully incorporated many young players into the Mets' lineup -- guys like Gooden, Ron Darling, Wally Backman, Lenny Dykstra, Kevin Mitchell and others. Unlike some managers, Johnson has always trusted inexperienced guys. "I feel I'm pretty good at handling young players," he said.

While he tried to keep his enthusiasm for Harper restrained, his affection for the Nats' uber-prospect was pretty obvious. "Is he the best candidate out there? I'd like to have another left-handed bat out there. I'm open to him competing."

While the Nationals have stated their desire to have Harper play at each level of the minors, starting a season with a 19-year-old position player in the majors wouldn't be unprecedented. Back in 1989, the Seattle Mariners gave their Opening Day center-field job to a kid who had played just 18 games above Class A.

Ken Griffey Jr. turned out pretty well.

Obviously, phenoms like Griffey are the rarity. Since 1950, only four players in their age-19 season have received 500 plate appearances -- Griffey, Robin Yount, Rusty Staub and Al Kaline. Only three others -- Edgar Renteria, Ed Kranepool and Tony Conigliaro, received as many as 400 plate appearances.

But Johnson's point was clear: That's the kind of talent Harper possesses.

If Harper wins the right-field job, Johnson also said he'd be comfortable sliding Jayson Werth over to center field, where he started 14 games last season. "He loves center," Johnson said. "He's a heck of a right fielder and I thought he did a good job in center."

Johnson clearly craves another left-handed bat. Other than Adam LaRoche, who must return from his shoulder surgery, the only other left-handed hitters currently on the Nationals' 40-man roster are outfielder Roger Bernadina and switch-hitting infielder Steve Lombardozzi, neither of whom possesses much power. Johnson says his ideal lineup would include at least three left-handed batters.

Spring training is months away, but you get the idea the Harper campaign has already begun.