Each offseason, a few familiar names appear on the Washington Nationals’ list of nonroster invitees to major league spring training. A highly touted rookie or two generally makes that list, too. This year’s list, which will likely be announced next month, will include a rookie with a particularly familiar name: Harper.
Six-foot-5 left-hander Bryan Harper, the 28-year-old brother of Nationals star right fielder Bryce, has been invited to big league camp for the first time in his seven-year professional career, according to people familiar with the situation. The Nationals re-signed the elder Harper to a minor league deal earlier this offseason, though little doubt existed that they would. Before he suffered a torn ulnar collateral ligament late in the 2016 season, Harper had pushed his way to the brink of the majors and a September call-up with 2.95 ERA in 20 appearances with Class AAA Syracuse. He is expected to be ready to pitch this season.
Bryan Harper was never considered a major league lock and never received the hype that accompanies highly touted prospects. But the University of South Carolina product made great strides in 2016, pitching his way into the major league conversation just in time for a September call-up. He held batters to a .174 batting average against and struck out 41 batters in 40 innings between Syracuse and Class AA Harrisburg in 2016. His left arm didn’t withstand that push, and he spent the 2017 season rehabbing from Tommy John surgery.
As his brother enters the much-discussed final season before his endlessly talked-about free agency, Bryan Harper seems a long shot to make the major league roster early this season. But like he did in 2016 and depending on the state of his surgically repaired pitching elbow, he could pitch his way into a late-season call-up. The Nationals currently have four left-handed relievers on their 40-man roster — closer Sean Doolittle, Enny Romero, Matt Grace and Sammy Solis. Last year, they carried at least two lefties besides Doolittle in their bullpen at all times. Their system is short on lefty relievers that are big league ready or even close to nearing that title. So opportunity exists for Harper, regardless of whether the Nationals find a serviceable free agent or two through the usual spring training audition process.
The Harper brothers are close, taken a year and 906 picks apart in the 2010 and 2011 drafts. They have not played together in years. Bryce’s rapid rise through the Nationals’ minor league system meant they never got much chance to do so professionally. But now, months before Bryce will decide where he will be most comfortable spending what could be the best years of his major league career, Bryan will join him in major league camp for the first time. Who knows what his presence might mean for the baseball future of the Harper brothers. For the present, the intrigue is hard to ignore.