The Nationals could use a left-handed power hitter to slide into their 2012 lineup around Ryan Zimmerman, Michael Morse and Jayson Werth, and one might just be surfacing out in the Arizona desert.
After a slow start in the Arizona Fall League, Bryce Harper has emerged as one of the best players amongst the toughest minor league competition available. He slammed another home run for the Scottsdale Scorpions last night, giving him five homers and 17 RBIs over his last eight games. (Per ESPN’s Jason Grey, General Manager Mike Rizzo was there watching in person.) In 16 games total, Harper is hitting .290/.357/.613.
That’s obviously a small sample, but Harper’s success while playing against the best prospects in baseball could have an impact on the Nationals’ offseason plans. While Harper has yet to play at Class AAA and Rizzo philosophically believes prospects should play at all levels, the Nationals have not ruled out letting Harper compete to make their opening day roster. Harper’s recent dominance can only nudge their thinking further in that direction.
The Nationals could rationalize Harper not playing at Class AAA before reaching the majors. He’ll play for more than a month in the fall league, which does not offer the collection of one-time major league pitchers he would face in Class AAA. But it does provide a sampling of top pitching prospects. And then he’ll have spring training, which would feature more pitching better than or similar to Class AAA. Even if he doesn’t wear a Syracuse uniform, he’ll have played against plenty of talent roughly equivalent to what he would face at AAA.
Harper will still have to earn his spot in spring training, and at this point the safe bet would still be on him spending a month or two in Syracuse, which would also serve the purpose of delaying his arbitration and free agent clock as a Super Two player.
But Harper’s standout play will at least give the Nationals a tough decision, and inform their decisions this offseason. With Morse and Werth occupying two outfield spots in their current plans, the Nationals would have decide how Harper, a new center fielder and first baseman Adam LaRoche fit together on their roster. You can see how many different options the possibility of Harper reaching the majors on opening day next year gives the Nationals.
(I don’t think it will have any impact on Rizzo’s decision, but Harper making the Nationals out of spring training would clearly be a marketing and ticket sales boon. The Nationals would arguably have the biggest story in baseball on opening day. If Stephen Strasburg starts, too, it wouldn’t be arguable.)
That may be looking a little far down the road, I suppose, but it makes for good winter fodder. For now, both Harper and catcher Derek Norris – another top prospect who’s hitting .354/.450/.521 with two homers – have made the Rising Stars Game, which will be played Saturday at 8:10 Eastern time. You can watch the game live on MLB Network.