By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 13, 2010; 11:36 PM
No. 1 overall draft pick Bryce Harper will join the Washington Nationals' contingent in the Arizona Fall League on Sunday, making him the second-youngest player in the history of a league General Manager Mike Rizzo says is baseball at "probably its highest level beyond the big leagues."
Though Harper will be a member of the Scottsdale Scorpions' "taxi squad" instead of a full participant, the decision to send him at all shows the high level of confidence the Nationals' brain trust has in the 17-year-old, power-hitting outfielder. After turning 18 on Saturday, Harper will become only the third 18-year-old to play in the Arizona Fall League.
"I recognize that this kid is going into a situation that is pretty unprecedented," Rizzo said. "He's going to be an 18-year-old player in an extremely accelerated league. But we feel the trade-off of getting this kid to work out for two months in that environment was well worth the opportunity of him struggling a little bit in such an advanced league. With this kid's ability level and this kid's attitude, it's certainly not going to retard his progress. We think the two months he'll be playing under these conditions is going to accelerate his developmental curve extremely."
Harper, who this week completed his first professional experience with the Nationals' Florida Instructional League team, will not participate fully in Arizona while playing alongside the six other Nationals prospects for Scottsdale. As a "taxi squad" player, he will attend and participate in every practice and work out and dress for every game. He is eligible to play only two games per week, on Wednesday and Saturdays.
"His days off will be equally important," Nationals Director of Player Development Doug Harris said. "This gives us an opportunity to work with him with some intensity because we know he won't be in a ballgame. We can grind a lot of areas at the same time."
The Nationals plan for Harper to play mostly right field, the position he spent his time at the instructional league learning full-time for the first time and the position they envision him manning at Nationals Park in years to come. How soon is yet to be determined - "I don't have a crystal ball of what that is," Rizzo said - but his presence in the fall league is a clear sign the Nationals believe he could reach the majors quickly.
The league is advanced, made up mostly of elite prospects at the Class AA level; last year's league featured current major league stars such as Stephen Strasburg, Mike Stanton and Jason Heyward. The Nationals are willing to challenge Harper as he begins his road to the majors.
"He's going to be immersed every day for two solid months with some of the best prospects in major league baseball," Rizzo said. "The guys who go to that league go to the big leagues relatively soon. . . . I want him to see the accelerated portion of this league and to get two months more of really high-caliber and accelerated type of baseball. 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."
When Harper dresses for Monday's game two days after his 18th birthday, even though he will not play, he will become the second-youngest player to don a uniform in the Arizona Fall League. Mets outfield prospect Fernando Martinez made his debut on his 18th birthday in 2006, two days younger than Harper will be.
In Arizona, Harper will spend time tweaking his swing and continuing his transition to the outfield under the watchful eyes of "some of our most highly valued staff members," Harris said. Class AA Harrisburg Manager Randy Knorr, one of the Nationals' most trusted player development specialists, is managing Scottsdale. During games he does not play, Harper will sit next to Knorr and soak in his expertise, "to learn the game through Randy's eyes," Harris said.
Nationals hitting coach Rick Eckstein also will spend a portion of the fall league season in Arizona, as will vice president of player development Bob Boone and Rizzo himself.
Upon drafting Harper with the first pick this June, Rizzo kept open the possibility of sending Harper to the fall league. His performance at the instructional league in Viera, Fla., only encouraged him. Harper embraced the camp and made his best adjustments at the plate in the final week.
"He did show he certainly was not over his head," Rizzo said. "He performed admirably, leading the team in all sorts of categories, a great performance at the plate and in the field. And he just became one of the guys. He was just one of the guys. His teammates really embraced him and took him into the fold. He fit in perfectly. It was a decision I had made in my mind prior to instructional league but was reinforced by his performance on and off the field in the instructional league."