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Bryce Harper will make his major-league debut tomorrow night in Los Angeles.
The Nationals never planned to bring Bryce Harper to the big leagues this soon, but with their two best players now injured and an urgent need for an offensive spark, general manager Mike Rizzo made the surprising decision today to promote the 19-year-old outfielder after only three weeks spent at Class AAA.
Harper will make his debut tomorrow night against the Dodgers in Los Angeles, starting in left field and taking the roster spot that will open up when third baseman Ryan Zimmerman is placed on the 15-day disabled list with right shoulder inflammation.
"We still have a very good and committed developmental plan for Bryce in place," Rizzo said during a late-afternoon conference call. "I still believe very passionately in the plan, and I'm going to be very committed to it. But this was expedited by the circumstances and by two of our middle of the lineup guys going down in [Michael] Morse and Ryan Zimmerman. We felt we needed to bring in an impactful, left-handed bat that can play the corner outfield."
Harper was hitting just .250 with one homer and three RBI in 20 games at Syracuse, but he had five hits in his last 13 at-bats, several of them coming in front of Rizzo, who watched his Class AAA club play in Rochester this week.
"This guy was just starting to heat up in Triple-A, and I think we caught him when he was hot," the GM said. "And we caught him when he had his stroke intact and felt comfortable at the position that we're going to play him in the major leagues."
Harper's debut, the source of much speculation since the day he was drafted No. 1 in the country in June 2010, will come on the road, in a West Coast game that doesn't start until 9:10 p.m. EDT. He will, however, be joined in the field by fellow No. 1 draft pick Stephen Strasburg, who is scheduled to pitch for the Nationals against Dodgers right-hander Chad Billingsley.
Harper's debut also happens to come after he spent just slightly more than the 20 minimum days in the minors required to ensure the Nationals will retain control of him for an extra, full season when he's closer to peak form. Even if Harper never spends another day in the minors, he won't be eligible for free agency until after the 2018 season.
Harper would, however, qualify for "Super 2" arbitration status after the 2014 season, a distinction that could cost the Nationals millions of dollars in salary down the road.
The decision to promote Harper, according to Rizzo, ultimately came down to the team's need over the individual player's readiness. With both Zimmerman and Morse (strained lat muscle) on the DL, the Nationals are without their No. 3 and No. 4 hitters. The players who have subbed for Morse in left field so far this season are hitting a collective .097.
"Suffice it to say, this isn't the coming-out party for Bryce that we had in mind," Rizzo said. "This isn't the optimal situation developmentally for Bryce."
Rizzo did consider other possible call-ups besides Harper, specifically power-hitting prospect Tyler Moore. Moore, who hit 31 home runs each of the last two seasons and already has six homers this year, is a natural first baseman who only began learning how to play left field this month. He's made only three appearances in the outfield to date, and Rizzo said he didn't want to put Moore in an uncomfortable position right now.
Harper has a well-established track record when it comes to his debuts at various new levels of play: He has always struggled to hit for at least his first two or three weeks upon getting promoted, but he's always taken off after that and performed at a high level the rest of his time there.
Thus, the Nationals know there's a reasonable chance Harper will come out of the gates slowly. His first stint in the big leagues may not even last very long, with Rizzo suggesting the organization might send him back to Syracuse when Zimmerman returns from the DL.
Even if that happens, though, the Nationals aren't concerned about this surprising promotion serving as a long-term detriment to Harper's development.
"With Bryce's makeup and his attitude and his confidence level, I don't have many reservations," Rizzo said. "I know this is a very confident person, and we expect him to perform well in the major leagues. And if he doesn't, he's not the type of guy that it's going to derail his developmental plan whatsoever. He's the type of guy who will handle anything that's thrown at him and be better off for it."
Zimmerman, meanwhile, will be placed on the 15-day DL with inflammation of the AC joint in his right shoulder. Because the move is backdated to April 21, the 27-year-old third baseman will be eligible to return as soon as May 6. Rizzo, while saying he did not believe this injury would require a long stay on the DL, did not say Zimmerman would definitely be ready to return when his 15 days are up.
"The doctors all feel there's a good chance he can come off the disabled list when he's eligible to come off," the GM said "But these things sometime take on a life of their own, as we've seen with some other injuries, and I'm not going to be held to a calendar date."