From young minor league prospects to rookie big-league talent, Prospect Press will be providing an inside look at baseball's best talent for years to come. Today's Prospect Press focuses on Washington Nationals outfield prospect Bryce Harper
Labeled as the next "Lebron James of baseball", the Washington Nationals wasted little time drafting Bryce Harper with the first pick overall in the June 2010 player draft. At the age of 17, he was already creating a legendary name for himself while playing ball for the College of Southern Nevada, breaking the school's home run record and winning the 2010 Golden Spikes Award, awarded annually to the best amateur baseball player.
Fast forward to April 2011. The number one prospect in baseball (depending on who you ask) made his professional debut for the Low-A Hagerstown Suns in the South Atlantic League. The left-handed hitting outfielder struggled in his first 31 at-bats for the Suns, hitting .226 with one home run, five walks, and nine strikeouts. Although he got off to a slow start, thanks to a pair of contact lenses and a growing comfort level at the plate, he's been tearing up the South Atlantic League ever since.
Headed into tonight's action, Harper is hitting .342/.436/.619 with 14 home runs and a 1.055 OPS this season. The 18-year-old prospect currently shares the league lead in home runs, while ranking among the top five players in all other offensive categories, earning him a trip as the leading vote-getter to the 2011 SAL All-Star Game in Delmarva, Maryland.
While it's obvious Harper has no trouble hitting pitching at the Low-A level, when do the Nationals allow Harper to take the next step? The Nationals front office has already ruled out any major league action in 2011 for Bryce, so it's likely that he won't see pitching above the Double-A level this season. Although it's anyone's guess at this point, a likely situation is that Harper will play in the South Atlantic All-Star Game on June 21, before receiving a promotion to Single-A Potomac of the Carolina League.
During his run through Sally League pitching over the past month and a half, many are still wondering what else Harper needs to do in order to receive a promotion to a new challenge. Obviously his bat isn't the reason he's still in Hagerstown, rather, it's his comfort level with playing the outfield and running the bases.
Harper mostly played catcher in high school and college, so he's still learning the correct way to approach the baseball off the bat. Early in the season, he's looked completely fooled with his first step, but has shown improvement over time while playing right and center field.
In addition to learning a new position on defense, Bryce is also learning the game of baseball in general at the professional level. Prior to the draft in 2010, Harper's "makeup" (not his massive amount of eye black) was brought into question and whether or not a team would pass on him due to his attitude.
Even though the Nationals paid a large sum of money for a 18-year-old kid, people need to realize just that; he's a teenager and the youngest player in the South Atlantic League. While his actions (especially like the one a few days ago
) could play a role in holding him back from a promotion, his attitude on or off the field doesn't affect his talent on the field. Anyone paying more attention to his attitude, rather than his play on the field, is wasting their time. The Nationals knew what type of person they were drafting, and with all eyes watching him, the latest incident will be handled by the team and everyone will move on. This is what happens when you're a super-prospect; you have a target on your back and everyone wants a piece of you.
Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo has stated that "Harper will touch every level of the minor league system". In all likelihood, Harper will be promoted to another level of baseball within a month and could spend the remainder of the season with the Potomac Nationals, with a brief appearance for the Double-A Harrisburg Senators. However, I wouldn't be surprised to see Bryce start the 2012 season with the Senators, with a possible major league call up in September of 2012.
Bryce Harper's talent is for real and has been made evident by his production in his first 200 pro plate appearances. He's had some trouble with pitch recognition at the lower level, but that will develop with the more pitchers he sees, just like his ability to react to balls off the bat while playing the outfield. It's not a question of if, but when will Harper reach Washington.