On April 25, as the team he assembled prepared to play across the country in San Diego, Washington Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo milled around a batting cage in Rochester, N.Y. He had flown from Washington the previous day with an intention he shared with few others, one of the organization’s most crucial tasks in 2012.
As the Syracuse Chiefs took batting practice, Bryce Harper spotted Rizzo and shook his hand.
“You’re here to bring me to the big leagues,” Harper said to Rizzo. “Aren’t you?”
Rizzo made countless decisions that shifted the Nationals’ fortunes in 2012, as big as the controversial call to shut down Stephen Strasburg and as small as how to fill his coaching staff. But perhaps no decision over the past year would have ramifications that affected the team in such a profound way as how and when to bring Harper to the majors.
As the year comes to an end and a rookie of the year trophy rests on his mantel, the notion of Harper struggling to adjust in the majors seems foreign. But back in April, Harper remained a 19-year-old with massive potential, an inexperienced center fielder, still a prospect to handle with care. If Rizzo waited too long, he would squander Harper’s ability to help a playoff push. If Rizzo acted too soon, he could spoil Harper’s development.
Harper had been at the heart of the franchise since June 7, 2010, the day the Nationals drafted him as a 17-year-old, but he had never actually played in Washington. He had been a Scottsdale Scorpion, a Hagerstown Sun, a Harrisburg Senator and a Syracuse Chief. Now, with the Nationals surging into meaningful contention for the first time and injuries eroding their roster, Rizzo had to decide if it was time to make him a Washington National.
“I think the organization’s decision to handle him the way we did was fine,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “It was the perfect way to do it.”
The process began in the middle of winter, when Rizzo and Johnson staked divergent positions.
Johnson wanted Harper to start the season with the Nationals, long a believer that age could not constrain talent. Johnson managed Dwight Gooden when he struck out 276 batters in 218 innings as a 19-year-old rookie in 1984, an experience that shaped Johnson’s opinion on Harper. More urgently, Johnson worried that first baseman Adam LaRoche’s ongoing recovery from shoulder surgery would limit him early in the year. Johnson wanted a left-handed bat, and he believed Harper was the best they had.
Rizzo wanted Harper to return to the minor leagues. He saw Harper as a special case — “I threw out my ordinary kind of development curve for a player of his ability level,” Rizzo said. But he was adamant Harper needed more seasoning. Harper had fewer than 500 plate appearances as a professional. Rizzo wanted him to get about 300 more against Class AAA pitching.
During spring training, Rizzo and Johnson met daily to discuss the roster, usually with other coaches present. Harper’s name often came up, and they quickly reached an agreement: He would start the season in the minors. They wanted him to face left-handed specialists, gain experience in center field and share a clubhouse with veterans who had played in the majors.
The decision was not solely based on on-field considerations. At every step of his career, even at junior college, Harper tended to have slow starts to his seasons. No matter when it came, Harper’s debut would attract massive hype. They worried about the potential distraction.
“The deal was, if he broke with us and he had his same propensity to struggle early, you [in the media] would have been all over us like a cheap suit,” Johnson said. “I told him if we brought him up and he struggled, there would be more emphasis on him. We’re trying to contend. It would hurt what we’re trying to do.”
At Syracuse, Harper started as slowly statistically as the Nationals expected. After 18 games, he was hitting .227 with one home run. In 21 at-bats against lefties, Harper had managed four hits.
But the Nationals used more than numbers to evaluate him. Doug Harris, the team’s director of player development, communicated with Rizzo his belief that Harper was holding his own despite the disheartening bottom line.
“The way he took his at-bats was an indicator of where he was in the process, the way he controlled the strike zone,” Harris said. “The numbers don’t necessarily define that.”
In the majors, the Nationals started with 14 wins in 19 games. Still, Rizzo began to worry about his roster. Michael Morse would miss the season’s first 50 games with an injury. Ryan Zimmerman’s shoulder acted up and threatened to put another middle-of-the-order hitter on the disabled list. “We were playing a little dead,” Rizzo said. “I wanted a little energy.”
And so, at the end of April, Rizzo told Johnson he was going to Rochester to find out in person: Was Harper, even after only a handful of games, ready for the majors?
“I was much more open-minded at that time,” Rizzo said.
And during their initial meeting in Rochester, Harper could tell. On the outside, after Harper guessed Rizzo had come to promote him, Rizzo told Harper he had only come to check in with the Nationals’ Class AAA affiliate. On the inside, Rizzo already began to believe Harper was ready.
“That first comment was kind of indicative of his confidence level,” Rizzo said. “Why is everyone else taking so long to see I should be playing in the big leagues?”
Rizzo sat with Harris as he watched Harper play in three games over two days. Rizzo wanted to see three things: Would left-handed pitchers overwhelm Harper? Could he handle center field? How much would a bad at-bat affect him?
“I was hoping he showed me exactly what he showed me,” Rizzo said.
Rizzo also wanted to gauge Harper’s attitude. Ambling around the cage before games, Rizzo chatted up Harper. At first, he asked about Harper’s family and life in Syracuse. Over the two days, the discussion grew more serious. Rizzo grilled him about his approach against tough lefties. He quizzed him about the difference between playing center field and the corner spots. He wondered how he would respond to going 0 for 4. All of Harper’s answers impressed him.
“I felt comfortable knowing this guy has the makeup and the character and the confidence level,” Rizzo said. “If he did struggle, it wouldn’t have him regress. He would make the proper adjustments when he had to.”
On April 27, Rizzo called Johnson to let him know. Zimmerman would go on the disabled list. Harper would take his place and debut the next night in Los Angeles against the Dodgers.
The Nationals followed the usual protocol for promoting any prospect. Rizzo called Harris, who called Syracuse Manager Tony Beasley, who summoned Harper into his office.
The next night, Harper dug into the batter’s box at Dodger Stadium, the baseball world watching as the sun set over the San Gabriel Mountains beyond the fence. He would flip his helmet as he raced for a double, the start of a whirlwind season. Harper helped ignite the Nationals’ 98-win season, a burst of energy and an offensive catalyst.
“It couldn’t have gone much smoother,” Rizzo said. “He was a great player for us. I remember answering some questions during the little dry spell he had: ‘What’s your answer for Harper? How do you get him better?’ My answer is, you let Harper play. Just run him out there. We’re a better team with Harper in the lineup than out of the lineup. He’s going to figure it out.”
Back in Beasley’s office, when the decision still appeared like a delicate matter, Harper listened as his Class AAA manager broke the news. In his first moments as a big leaguer, Bryce Harper was speechless.