The Washington Nationals' Great Bryce Harper Debate: Double Or Triple-A Or Opening Day?

WASHINGTON - AUGUST 26: Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals takes batting practice at Nationals Park on August 26 2010 in Washington DC. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

D.C. GM Mike Rizzo was asked on the night of the 2010 Draft, June 8, 2010 and has been asked many times since. When will Bryce Harper make his MLB debut? The first decision the Washington Nationals made, which they announced on the night of the Draft, was to move the then-17-going-on-18-year-old out from behind the plate to the outfield because, as the Nats' general manager explained, "We think his bat is well ahead of his defense as a catcher, and with the rigors of the game of catching, the squatting, the beating that they take behind the plate, we just think that it will accelerate his development in the minor leagues and also extend his career as a major leaguer." The Nationals weren't going to rush Harper up, however, or "retard" his development if he showed signs of being ready to advance through the system.

"We're certainly not going to rush him," Rizzo told reporters on the night of the 2010 Draft, "We're going to develop him the right way, by our timeline, by our development curve and we're not going to move him until we feel that he's mastered where he's been and when he's done so we'll move him accordingly." Harper started the 2011 season in Class-A Hagerstown after a quick-but-impressive Spring Training in which he hit in 7 of 18 at bats over 13 games and wondered aloud why he couldn't compete for a spot on the Nats' Opening Day roster. When Harper made the jump from Low-A Hagerstown to Double-A Harrisburg, he did so with a .318/.423/.554 slash, 17 doubles and 14 HR's in 72 games and 305 plate appearances.

D.C. GM Mike Rizzo appeared on 106.7 the Fan in D.C.'s "The Mike Rizzo Show" in the first week of July to talk to MASN and 106.7 the Fan's Byron Kerr about Harper's move to Double-A, explaining to the host that, "We had a plan all along to cultivate [Bryce Harper] in a specific manner. We feel that he's had plenty of time at the Class-A level, dominated it pretty well, honed his skills."

"We felt that the logical step was to get him to Double-A ," Rizzo continued, "prepare him for the Arizona Fall League after the season is over, [and] so we decided to give him approximately two months in Double-A after playing about two and a half months in A-ball." Harper played just 37 games and made 147 plate appearances with the Harrisburg Senators before a hamstring injury ended his first pro season prematurely. Harper had a .256/.329/.395 line with seven doubles and three home runs at Double-A, once again starting slowly as he has at each level of the Nats' system but recovering with a .292/.375/.521 line in 56 August plate appearances before he went down.

Showing no signs of the injury, but some rust early in Arizona Fall League, Harper recovered from yet another slow start to finish his stint in the so-called "finishing school for the game's top prospects" with a .333/.400/.634 slash, six doubles, two triples, six HR's, 26 RBI's, 11 walks and 22 K's in 25 games and 93 at bats for the AFL's Scottsdale Scorpions. MLB.com's Jonathan Mayo named the now-19-year-old Harper the top prospect in the league at the end of the season. D.C. GM Mike Rizzo told MLB Network Radio hosts Jim Bowden and Casey Stern after watching Harper in the AFL, that Harper had, "... really come a long way in the outfield, left field and right field, he plays both. He's improving dramatically. I saw him backing up bases instinctually and not having to really think about it, so he's come a long way in that." Harper was also named the no.1 prospect in the Nats' organization by Baseball America.

Meanwhile, back in the nation's capital, or at least on the airwaves in Washington, Nats' Skipper Davey Johnson had been stirring things up. In an interview on 106.7 the FAN's Mike Wise Show with Mike Wise (@mikewiseguy) and Holden Kushner (@HoldenRadio), Johnson, asked what the future holds for Harper and where he'll start the 2012 season, said, "I know where he wants to be. I can tell you that right now. He wanted to be in Washington last year."

"I know he's going to cap off a great Fall League," Johnson said, "And I know he's going to come to Spring Training and he's going to want to show us he's the best outfielder we've got." Asked if Harper had a legit shot to make the club, Johnson told the hosts, "I'm going to go north with the best group of guys I can lay my hands on. I'm going to keep an open mind. The fact is I've said that one other time to a general manager, I already said that to Rizzo, about a guy named Dwight Gooden, I said, 'Just keep an open mind going into Spring.'"

The Nationals' 68-year-old Skipper reiterated his feelings yesterday in Washington Post writer Thomas Boswell's article entitled, "At baseball winter meetings, Nationals’ Mike Rizzo is usually predictably unpredictable." The Nats have made no secret of their desire to add two things this winter, a reliable starter and an outfielder (preferably a high-OBP, leadoff-type), with B.J. Upton's name once again coming up and Cuban-born international free agent Yoenis Cespedes reportedly another target.

Davey Johnson, according to the WaPost's Mr. Boswell, believes the Nationals, "'... can contend for the playoffs next year right where we are, with a couple of tweaks. We’re one player, maybe two players, away from being a strong team,' Johnson said." And Johnson thinks Washington might already have the answer on the Nats' 40-Man roster. "[Johnson] made it clear one of those players might be Bryce Harper, 19," Mr. Boswell wrote, quoting Johnson saying, "'You can’t hide talent. Bryce is like Dwight Gooden [in the Mets’ rotation at age 19]. If he’s ready, he’s ready.'" If Bryce Harper shows he's ready in Spring Training, can Davey Johnson convince Mike Rizzo to let him have what he wants? Johnson dismissed the idea that concerns about Harper's contract would affect the decision in the Washington Post article.

If the Nationals believe they can contend, would they be better off having Harper there from the start, allowing him to get the slow start he's had at each level out of the way early in the season rather than bringing him up to a competitive team and hoping he fits in and produces right away? Would you rather have a hot-hitting Harper join the team after a few months at Double or Triple-A? Bringing Harper up would require some changes in the outfield. Assuming Adam LaRoche (or some other big 1B say from Milwaukee) is at first, with Michael Morse in left and Jayson Werth in the outfield, would the Nats be comfortable shifting Werth to center so Harper can play left or right?

Asked what he thought of Werth in center in a press conference last month, the Nats' GM said "I thought he played very well defensively in center field. I think he's a very good defensive center fielder." In a perfect world, however, the Nats would find a center fielder and keep Werth in right, but, as the Nats' GM explained, "... the reason that we put [Werth] in center was to give us more options, because now knowing that Jayson can more than handle the center field position it obviously opens up a bigger pool of players that can play a corner position and Jayson go to the middle. But in a perfect world I'd like Jayson to be our right fielder."

Of course, this isn't necessarily a Rizzo vs Johnson situation. The two have admittedly agreed on just about everything since they began working together a few years back with the composition of the Nats' bench and their use of the bullpen two notable exceptions. But as the Washington Post's Mr. Boswell noted in a recent chat with readers, Johnson does have a way of getting what he wants.

Asked by a reader if there was any way Harper's in Wrigley Field on Opening Day, the WaPost writer once again brought up Johnson's history with Doc Gooden in NY, and recalled how Johnson, "... basically called up [Steve] Lombardozzi, [Chris] Marrero, [Brad] Peacock and [Tom] Milone __ALL of them__ before the front office was willing to talk about it. Davey talked about how great it would be 'when they come up.'" When it's time to make a decision, Mr. Boswell wrote, "He's going to say, 'This is what I need. This is who I want on my team.' And he'll say it in public first." All Johnson has said publically so far is that he wants everyone to keep an open mind. How motivated do you think Bryce Harper is going to be heading into Spring Training?

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