A Bryce Harper update from the Instructional League
Tuesday, October 5, 2010; 7:11 PM
Bryce Harper has had his share of good days and bad during his first professional experience at the Florida Instructional League, and Tuesday counted as one of the bad ones. "He had a tough day," Nationals Director of Player Development Doug Harris said. "He was eliminated in the opening round of our Maize Madness tournament." What, you're surely asking, is that? At the Nationals' player development complex in Viera, Fla., the officials running the Nats' Instructional League team set up a bracket-style tournament in which pairs of players compete in the game Cornhole, in which teammates try to throw beanbags filled with corn into through a hole in a wooden board. "Just to break up the monotony a little bit," Harris said. They started today, and Harper -- the first overall pick, apparently, for reasons other than his skill at Saturday morning tailgates -- did not make it out of Round 1. Joking aside, the first three weeks to Harper's career have been, not unexpectedly, a mixed bag. The Nationals are finding what they thought: He is incredibly refined for a 17-year-old, and yet still raw by the standards of even the lowest levels of professional baseball. He is still learning a new position, and he is facing the most advanced pitching of his life. One day this week in Lakeland, he turned a 95-mile-per-hour fastball into a tape-measure homer. There are also games when strikeouts pile up more than highlights. "Good days and bad days," Harris said from Viera in a phone conversation. "He's had some days with a couple homers. But he's also swung through some balls. He's still a 17-year-old. As physical and athletic as he is, it's easy to overlook that at times. He looks like a 21-year-old college kid. He's taken a lot in regarding defense, base running, his approach to hitting, all the finer points of the game." Harper, a catcher for most of his life, has spent much of his time in Florida learning the outfield. Minor league instructor and Class A Hagerstown coach Tony Tarasco has drilled into him the basics of the position: reading the ball off the bat, throwing to the proper base, where to set up before certain pitches. "He's so athletic," Harris said. "It's fairly natural for him. You could probably put him at any position, and he's going to look like he has any chance to play there." Offensively, the Nationals have not altered Harper's swing to comply with their "no touch" policy with draft picks -- they wait a period of time before overhauling anything with any of their prospects, so as to not overload players receiving their first experience. They have focused on the mental side of hitting -- "how to control an at-bat," Harris said. The Nationals' Arizona Fall League season will begin a week from today. It's highly likely that it will begin without Harper. It seems probable it will end without him, too. Harris said the Nationals have not formally discussed sending Harper to the AFL. For Harper to attend the fall league, they would first need to obtain a special exemption from Major League Baseball. Each team can choose only two players who have yet to reach Class AA, and the Nationals already have theirs in Sammy Solis and Derek Norris. But they have one AFL roster spot available and they can petition MLB for one more, a hurdle the Nationals would almost certainly be able to clear. A few officials in the Nationals' organization said they'd be surprised to see Harper out in Arizona. The collection of talent is no joke; some of the players last year were Stephen Strasburg, Buster Posey, Mike Leake and Jason Heyward. Throwing a 17-year-old, even one as talented and confident as Harper, may be setting him up for unnecessary failure. "That's a pretty significant jump for any player," Harris said. For now, down in Florida, Harper is fitting in with his new teammates. Harper, a self-described "baseball rat," missed several months while waiting to sign his contract. He relished the chance to start his career. Despite the obvious attention on him, Harper has not stood out, Harris said. "He's having a blast," Harris said. "The best part is here, this group of kids that are around him, I think it's a special group. There's no separation. There's no sense of, 'he's the big man on campus.' He's blended in exceptionally well." One final non-Harper note: When I asked Harris what stood out to him in Florida, the name he mentioned was Solis, the Nationals' second-round pick this summer. Solis, a left-handed starting pitcher from the University of San Diego, started fast in two brief starts at Hagerstown, where he allowed two hits, no walks and no runs in four innings. Solis has continued to show good fastball command, Harris said, and his changeup has been especially effective.