Washington Nationals' Bryce Harper Set To Make AFL Debut Tonight.

WASHINGTON - AUGUST 26: General Manger Mike Rizzo Bryce Harper #34 of the Washington Nationals and Scott Boras talk to the media during a press conference at Nationals Park on August 26 2010 in Washington DC. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

Though his performance in the Florida Instructional League and evaluation by his coaches and GM ultimately determined his path, the Nats' intention to send Bryce Harper to the Arizona Fall League was made clear on the day the Washington Nationals introduced the then-17-year-old catcher-turned-outfielder to the D.C. Press corps a little over a week after they'd signed the no.1 overall pick in the 2010 First-Year Player Draft to a 5-year/$9.9 million dollar major league deal with minutes to spare before the mid-August deadline. D.C. GM Mike Rizzo was asked in the introductory press conference what the immediate plan was for the one-time SI cover kid who'd left high school early and played a year of JUCO ball, in which he posted a.442/.524/.986 slash line with 22 doubles, 4 triples, 29 HR's and 89 RBI's in 62 games and 215 at bats, to make himself eligible for the first possible draft in which he could be selected.

"The plan for Bryce," Mr. Rizzo explained, is to, "...prepare him to play in the Florida Instructional League with the rest of our top prospects...and from there, we're not sure. There's a possibility that he could play in the Arizona Fall League. We're going to take that step by step, and then he'll prepare for Spring Training next season."

In a Draft day interview, the Nationals' General Manager had said that Harper, if he'd signed in time to play during the 2010 Minor League season, would've started his career, " in our lowest level, in the Gulf Coast League," so that he could adjust to, "...the rigors of the professional game, the everyday-ness of professional baseball," which is, "...really the first thing that a professional player has to overcome." Two things were clear after Harper hit in 15 of 47 at bats, posted a .319/.407/.702 Instructional League slash line (1.110 OPS?) and connected for four doubles, a triple, four homers and 12 RBI's while taking seven walks to lead the Nats' Instructional League squad in homers, RBI's and walks. Harper would play in the AFL. And he wasn't starting in the Gulf Coast League next season...

MLB.com's Bill Ladson reported in an October 13th blog post entitled, "Nats' Harper going to Arizona Fall League", that Harper would likely start the season at Class A ball (in either Potomac or Hagerstown), and would immediately head out to Arizona where he'd join the other Nats' prospects on the Scottsdale Scorpions' roster as a member of the "Taxi" squad which meant he would be able to play just twice a week on Wednesdays and Saturdays. In Mr. Ladson's article the D.C. GM said he'd had to determine if Harper was, "...going to be over his head in the AFL,'" which, Mr. Rizzo explained, "...[is] a very advanced league, but I think he is going to handle it. It's going to be very valuable to him."

Harper's AFL experience started Monday with BP and workouts at the Surprise Rafter's home park before the Scorpions and Rafters played the sixth game on the Fall League schedule. Harper's debut comes tonight in the eighth game. A year ago both of the Nats' '09 1st Round picks played in the Arizona Fall League before eventually making their major league debuts. Harper's probably going to play in the Minors a bit longer, forced to "master" each level before advances up through the organization. MLB.com's Bill Ladson spoke to the former Nats' team President Stan Kasten today for an article entitled, "Kasten happy Rizzo received extension", in which Mr. Ladson writes that Harper, "...is expected to be in the big leagues in two years," which is the same time frame Mr. Kasten offered in answer to a question about the outfielder's development during an interview with internet-based writers and fans held shortly after the Draft as part of the Nats' "Inside Pitch Live" speaker series:

Stan Kasten: " "I think [the Nats' scouts] believe that he is a kid who is well-developed for a 17-year-old, mentally and physically, and that he will have a short path to the major leagues, especially if he signs really quickly. I'm just saying, okay. I'm just offering advice. In addition, the baseball people I talk to think his bat could be so advanced he'd be better off in the outfield...he has an above average arm, [and] wouldn't have the wear and tear or the learning curve that a catcher would need. I think a catcher might take three or four or five years from a seventeen-year-old to really make it up here, whereas an outfielder could be up here in...two years maybe?"

Like every aspect of following the Nats, waiting for Harper to make his MLB debut will take patience, but tonight Nationals fans get the first look at the reward they received for suffering through the second of two back-to-back 100-loss+ seasons. If it's anything like the first glimpses of Stephen Strasburg last fall, this should be fun. Harper makes his AFL debut at 9:35 pm in the east, 6:35 pm MST when the Scorpions take on the Mesa Solar Sox. 

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