Is it too early to talk about where Bryce Harper's going to play when he makes his way to the Major Leagues? Before he's even played a single minor league game? C'mon, it's been talked about since long before he was drafted, and will continue to be discussed as he heads to Spring Training for the first time. Harper's set to get at bats against major league pitching before he's sent to minor league camp this spring and eventually (most likely) to Class-A Hagerstown to start the season. D.C. GM Mike Rizzo explained the decision to move Harper from behind the plate to the outfield on the day he was drafted last June:
Mike Rizzo: "I think we made the early decision that we're going to take the rigors and the pressure of learning the difficult position of catcher away from him and really let him concentrate on the offensive part of the game and let his athleticism take over as an outfielder. He's got above average speed and a plus plus throwing arm. We believe that he could pull off being a major league catcher. 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."
Before he left the organization, then-team President Stan Kasten further explained the decision to shift Harper to the outfield to fans at a Nats' "Inside Pitch Live" speaker series just after the draft, saying that, "The baseball people I talk to think his bat could be so advanced he'd be better off in the outfield,":
"[Harper] 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?"
Harper, as a then-17-year-old College of Southern Nevada freshman who hit .443 (101-for-228) with 23 doubles, four triples, 31 home runs, 98 RBI's, 39 walks and 20 stolen bases in 66 games played for the College of Southern Nevada, played the outfield at times during his one year of junior college ball since the team already had established catchers on its roster. Harper's coach at CSN, Tim Chambers, now UNLV's baseball coach, in an article by Baseball America's Conor Glassey from May 2010 entitled, "All About Bryce Harper", said that his prize pupil's arm stood out from the start when he played the outfield:
"'When he's in the outfield, guys hit singles now and it's almost like Little League because they won't round the bag. They stop on the bag for fear that if they round it, he's coming. And he is.'"
After signing with the Nats at the last minute in August, Harper first went to the Florida Instructional League where he hit .319 (15-for-47) with four doubles, a triple, four homers, 12 RBI's and seven walks to lead Washington's Instructional League roster in HR's, RBI's, walks, OBP at .407 and slugging percentage at .702. Then it was the Arizona Fall League, where Harper, playing right field twice a week as part of the Scottsdale Scorpion's "taxi" squad, hit .343, 12 for 35, with a .410 OBP, .629 SLG, three doubles, two triples, one HR, seven RBI's, four walks, 11 K's and one stolen base. ESPN.com's Keith Law (@keithlaw) saw firsthand just how strong Harper's arm was when he traveled to the AFL this past fall, Tweeting from a game in which Harper caught a ball in right and threw a runner out at home that, "Mesa just challenged Harper's arm by sending a runner from third. #badidea."
MLB.com's Jonathan Mayo saw enough from Harper in the AFL to feel comfortable ranking the now-18-year-old outfielder as the second-best outfield prospect in baseball behind only Angels' OF Mike Trout in Mr. Mayo's recent article entitled, "Prospect Watch: Top 10 outfielders", in which he he praised Harper's "raw power" and bat speed and wrote that, "He runs well for a guy his size and should be a very good right fielder with a plus arm when all is said and done." D.C. GM Mike Rizzo, immediately after the draft, said he sees Harper as, "a prototypical package for a middle-of-the-lineup, power-hitting, strong-armed, right fielder," who has, "all the capabilities in the package to be an impact corner outfielder."
Then the Nats' GM went and signed Jayson Werth this winter, who's played predominantly in right field in his career, but has also played center, to a 7-year/$126M dollar deal. Werth, though he's been mentioned as an option in center against LHP should Nyjer Morgan continue to not hit lefties, seemingly has the right field job locked up til Harper's ready to make the jump, though he may remain there even after the phenom gets the call. Mr. Rizzo told Washington Post writer Adam Kilgore in a December 15th Nationals Journal post entitled, "How Jayson Werth affects Bryce Harper", that they'd planned to have Harper, "begin taking some of his fly balls in center," since the team believes he, "...has the athleticism to do pretty much whatever he wants on a baseball field, and the Nationals would be comfortable with him playing some center field in his first professional season."
Werth, who was described as a "middle-of-the-order bat, an above-average athlete and elite defender," by Rizzo when he was signed in December, has a .985 fld%, 4 errors and a +12.9 UZR/150 in 201 games in left over his career, a .971 fld%, 7 errors and a +6.1 UZR/150 in 104 games in center and a .987 fld%, 21 errors and a +10.3 UZR/150 in 818 games in right, where he's played 97, 147, 161, and 156 games over the last four seasons with a UZR/150 that's dropped from +30.7 in '07 to +28.5 in '08, +4.5 in '09 and finally -7.2 last season when he made 4 errors in right, and had a .987 fld% on the year.
Rizzo doesn't seem worried at all about the 31-going-on-32-year-old Werth declining defensively over the duration of his contract. The Nats' GM told reporters shortly after annoucing the signing, as recounted by Nats Insider.com's Mark Zuckerman in an article entitled, "Rizzo on Werth, Willingham, pitching", that, "From some of the left fielders I've seen, in the American League and the National League, this guy certainly, at 38 years old, can play left field for me in this league."
MLB.com's Bill Ladson, in an article yesterday entitled, "Harper has set his goals for first spring camp", wrote that Harper, who's previously stated goal is getting a September call-up late this year, is fine playing all three outfield positions, and Mr. Ladson quotes the Nats' 2010 no. 1 overall pick saying that he actually thinks center field is his best outfield position:
"'I'm not sure where I will play,' he said. 'I think I play center field better than I do anywhere else. I have enough speed and enough reaction to know where the ball goes off the bat. Being around Tony Tarasco and my dad, who played center field, has been a big help for me. Whether it's left, center or right, I will play anywhere the Nationals need me.'"
Washington Post writer Thomas Boswell wrote recently in an article entitled, "Ownership, GM are finally on same page", that the, "...futures of Werth, 31, and Harper, 18, are actually intertwined, and the faster Harper arrives, the better the Werth deal may look." Though he thought Werth would shift to center once Harper arrived, the Post's Mr. Boswell wrote that the, "Nats hope Nyjer Morgan can nail down the center field job this season, playing as he did in '09. But if he can't, it's possible that an outfield of Werth, Harper and a left-field platoon that includes Roger Bernadina, would be an even stronger unit." Morse/Bernadina, Harper and Werth in 2012? [Rizzo points to head.]