Photo courtesy Bill Scheuerman
Bryce Harper will continue to learn how to play right field while at the Arizona Fall League.
The short answer: Probably not.
The decision to send Harper to Arizona has less to do with his current ability level and more to do with his need to be playing baseball somewhere right now. Had he simply stayed home in Las Vegas, he'd be working out on his own, with some old friends from high school. And he'd show up in Viera in February -- at big-league camp, remember -- with three weeks of instructional ball as his only experience at the professional level.
That wasn't going to do anyone any good. So Mike Rizzo decided to have Harper play in the AFL. As a member of the Scottsdale Scorpions' taxi squad, he'll only be able to play on Wednesdays and Saturdays (unless a teammate gets hurt) but he'll be participating in pregame drills every day with top professional prospects who are several years older than he.
"I just felt we weren't doing him justice by sending him home and working out with a high school team and lifting weights on his own," Rizzo said yesterday. "This an opportunity for us to have this guy immersed into baseball for two more months at an accelerated rate with great players around him, for a lot of that stuff to rub off on him and really learn the professional game at probably its highest level [other than] the big leagues."
Make no mistake, Harper (who turns 18 on Saturday) isn't ready to face the kind of competition he's going to see in Arizona. He'll be the second-youngest player in AFL history, and he'll be playing against competition that for the most part has several years of minor-league experience ... or at least several years of major college experience (as opposed to his one season at the College of Southern Nevada).
The average age of Harper's Scottsdale teammates will be 23.4. That's 5 1/2 years older than he. The closest teammate in age will be fellow outfielder Xavier Avery, an Orioles prospect who turns 21 in January and already has 2 1/2 seasons of minor-league experience under his belt.
Yes, Harper has always played with and against kids older than he. But not this much older.
Which isn't to say this can't still be a positive experience for Harper. He may draw the most attention in Arizona this fall, but he won't be the best player. This is probably the first time in his life he can claim that. For a kid who has always played with a level of cockiness that has rubbed some people the wrong way, a little failure and a little humility wouldn't be such a bad thing.
Whether Harper thrives, fails or is merely average in Arizona, his career path from here probably doesn't change. Asked yesterday where Harper is likely to open his minor-league career next season, Rizzo didn't hesitate to respond.
"I would expect to see him where you expect to see every other 18-year-old," the GM said. "He's going to start his career at the lowest level, in A-ball, and work his way up from there."
So look for Harper to spend some quality time at Hagerstown and/or Potomac in 2011. After that, his performance will dictate his pace of advancement. At best, he opens 2012 at Class AA Harrisburg and perhaps finds his way to Washington before season's end. A 2013 big-league debut still seems more plausible.
"I don't know," Rizzo said when asked if he thinks Harper can reach the big leagues in short order. "I don't have a crystal ball of what that is. We've got examples of guys who played at that level relatively quickly. We've got examples of guys who it took longer.
"Suffice it to say, we believe he's a big-league player. When he gets to the big leagues, he's going to be a terrific major-league player. Once he gets there, hopefully he's at a point in his developmental where he never has to go back. He's going to be a big leaguer for the Nationals for a long, long time."