The electronic signal from South Capitol Street to Park Avenue making Bryce Harper's signing official had barely been processed before the obvious question was being asked all around NatsTown.
When will Bryce Harper make his big-league debut for the Nationals?
Settle down, everyone. There's plenty of time for that. Can't we just enjoy Harper's signing for one moment?
OK, time's up. When are we going to see Harper in D.C.?
Well, that will happen within a matter of days. Harper will be introduced in a press conference at Nationals Park, probably early next week at the start of the club's next homestand. So we'll see him in a Nats jersey and cap very soon.
And then? Harper is going to get very well-acquainted with Viera, Fla. He'll report ASAP to the Gulf Coast League, where he'll take a crash course in the art of tracking down fly balls in right field.
The GCL regular-season schedule only runs through August 28, so there won't be a lot of time for Harper to get professional game experience. The Nationals could possibly send him to Vermont for the final week of the short-season Class A Lake Monsters' season. That team also has a chance to make the playoffs, offering more potential playing time.
Ultimately, Harper will be back in Viera by mid-September for the Florida instructional league, the same place Stephen Strasburg got his start one year ago. The instructional league, which offers players from all minor-league levels who missed time during the regular season a chance to get extra at-bats and innings, runs through late-October. Which is when the Arizona Fall League begins.
The AFL is meant for top-tier prospects who already have experience at Class AA or Class AAA, but clubs are granted exceptions for players with less experience (such as Strasburg last year). So could Harper, who at that point will have just turned 18, wind up playing in Arizona in October and November?
"There's an outside possibility he could spend some time in the Arizona Fall League," Mike Rizzo said, shortly before getting a whipped cream pie in the face from Stan Kasten. "But we want to evaluate and see if he's ready for that fairly advanced league just after he's getting his feet wet in professional baseball. So we're going to wait and see where he's at."
Because he was given a major-league contract and thus appears immediately on the Nationals' 40-man roster, Harper will be in big-league camp next spring, working out and playing alongside Strasburg, Ryan Zimmerman, Ivan Rodriguez and Adam Dunn (well, I may be getting ahead of myself a tad with that last one). Assuming he doesn't make the Opening Day 2011 roster -- and I think that's a pretty safe assumption -- he'll be optioned to minor-league camp at some point and then open next season somewhere in the Nats' farm system. (Early guess: low-Class A Hagerstown, with a promotion to high-Class A Potomac sometime in the summer.)
A note about the optioning process: I know I started some debate last night and caused some confusion, but here's how it works ... A player uses up an option any season in which he is on the 40-man roster and is demoted to the minors (including in spring training). So Harper will use up an option this year when he's sent to the GCL, then again next spring when he's sent to somewhere in Class A, then probably again in spring 2012 when he's sent to Class AA or Class AAA. For most players, those three option years would be all he got, and thus the player would be out of options in spring 2013. However, players who have been professionals for less than five years are granted a fourth option year. Harper will fall into that category, so he doesn't have to make the Opening Day roster in 2013, though he certainly could.
(One other note about service time: Even though Harper has a big-league contract, he won't accrue any big-league service time until he's actually in the big leagues. So no matter what his salary is, he still can't be eligible for arbitration until he has three years in the majors (or two years and 130 days or so, making him a Super-2 player). And he can't become a free agent until he has six years in the majors. So it will be a LONG time before the Nats have to worry about losing him to another club.)
This much is certain: The Nationals believe Harper's trek to the majors won't be a long one. They wouldn't have given him a big-league contract (five years, $9.9 million total, $6.25 million of that in signing bonus money) otherwise. Whether his debut comes late in 2012, on Opening Day 2013 or later that summer, Harper will play a prominent role in the Nats' ultimate plan.
"He's a guy that could possibly be a cornerstone in our lineup in the very near future," Rizzo said. "He's a talent that we're pleased to put him in the organization."