Director of Player Development Doug Harris was added to the Washington Nationals' front office along with former Atlanta Braves' Scouting Director Roy Clark and former Boston Red Sox' Latin American Scouting Coordinator Johnny DiPuglia in October 2009 when D.C. GM Mike Rizzo set about restructuring the Nationals' Front Office. A scout with, "20 seasons of baseball experience as a player, amateur scout and professional scout," who'd spent the '09 season, "...as a Major League Scout/Advance Scout with Cleveland after a 12-year tenure with Texas in various scouting capacities," as the Nats wrote in a press release announcing his signing, Harris spent his first year as the VP of player development overseeing the Nats' '09 no.1 overall pick Stephen Strasburg's rise through the system.
This year it's another phenom. Mr. Harris appeared on MLB Network Radio's MLB Round Trip with Grant Paulsen (@minorsandmajors) and Mel Antonen (@MelAntonen) last night to talk about the Nats' 2010 no. 1 overall pick Bryce Harper and what the start of Spring Training will bring for the 18-year-old future Nationals' outfielder. Mr. Harris was first asked what the team could do try to calm the expectations some have for Harper...
Doug Harris: "As you noted earlier, we've had an experience with Stephen Strasburg which was very unique in his following. A little bit different with Bryce being that he's 18 years old. We have a pretty good support staff in place. John Dever, our PR Director, did a tremendous job with Stephen last year and we really want to create as normal a setting for Bryce as we possibly can as he gets his feet wet in this arena."
Asked what the team had learned from the Strasburg phenomenon, Harris compared the "mania that surrounded" Stephen to the experience he had as a minor leaguer playing in the South Atlantic League in the Royals' system in 1994 when Michael Jordan attempted to become a baseball player with the Birmingham Barons in the Chicago White Sox' system and the same Scottsdale Scorpions Bryce Harper played for in the AFL this fall. "Both [Stephen and Bryce] have done a tremendous job handling the process," Mr. Harris told the MLB Network Radio hosts, "and there were some bumps in the road and we feel like we're well equipped to move forward. [It's] a little different with Bryce in that he's an everyday player and certainly with Stephen being a pitcher, the mania kind of built on every fifth day."
In order for Harper's first Spring Training experience to be considered a success, Mr. Harris said that just all he has to do is keep, "going through his normal everyday process and handling it with maturity and grace, which he has. It's very easy to forget that Bryce is an 18-year-old with his physicality and his talents, and he's handled himself extremely well. I think his Arizona Fall League experience will help him. He was around older players, players on the verge of the big leagues, some on the roster, some having played in the big leagues, and I think that experience was tremendous for him going into big league camp."
The Nats' Director of Player Development goes on to say that the placement of such a young player is important, especially with a just-turned-18-in-October player like Harper, who hasn't gone through the college experience, and "[to have] Bryce with his peer group and going through that process arm in arm with those guys we think will help and certainly the attention that he gets adds another dynamic to this." Harper has talked to Strasburg about the process according to Mr. Harris, but he said that though, "They have communicated. I can't speak to the depths of their communication."
"I'm quite sure that they're going to have a lengthy conversation in camp," Mr. Harris said, "and I think Stephen will share his wisdom with Bryce and everything that he went through through the process, without a doubt." Both players played in the Arizona Fall League in the year they were drafted. Asked what he'd learned about the Nats' second-straight no.1 overall pick in the short time he played, Mr. Harris pointed to, "How [Harper] plays the game, the intensity at which he plays the game and prepares for the game, and his desire to not be good but be great and that is another quality that he shares with Stephen that gives us great hope in the organization going forward."
"He plays the game with reckless abandon," Mr. Harris said when asked to identify some part of the 18-year-old's game that could use improvement, "and as we all know, through the course of a minor league season and ultimately a major league season, you have to play with some element of control and I think that's something that he's gonna learn through this season." As for where he's going to start learning, Mr. Harris said, "The decision is not final, final. Certainly there's a lot of things that go into this and as we continue through Spring Training we'll come to that decision. But some of the benefits are that history shows in the game that to build a good foundation for a player you start him at the lower levels. Some of the tremendous players, David Wrights and Justin Uptons, they built a strong foundation at that low-A level before they advanced."
The talk then moved on to the backstops the Nats have stockpiled in the organization with Mr. Antonen listing Jesus Flores, Wilson Ramos, Derek Norris and Pudge Rodriguez, before Mr. Harris added Sandy Leon's name to the list, describing the 21-year-old Venezuelan-born catcher as, "a little bit of an under-the-radar catcher, a switch-hitting catcher that will likely play in Potomac this year that is a tremendous defender, game caller, switch bat, and you know he's going to sneak his way into that group."
"We feel really good about our ability to develop catching," Mr. Harris said, "Certainly with Bob Boone in house, people like Bobby Henley, Randy Knorr, Matthew LeCroy as one of our managers, we feel like we're well-equipped to handle the needs of catchers." Asked specifically about Wilson Ramos' game, Mr. Harris said, "Right now, obviously he's a very good defender, I think he's going to learn his game management, game-calling abilities as he breaks into the big leagues. He can throw with anybody, he's got power and as he develops his approach I think the bat's got a chance to blossom as well." Norris, Mr. Harris said, "is an advanced young offensive catcher. Very patient hitter. He's got very good plate discipline. Made tremendous strides in the Fall League defensively, his pitch to pitch focus. He's a very good athlete and he's got a big ceiling."
Danny Espinosa, according to Mr. Harris, immediately improves the team's defense, "The minute he walks on the field." "With his skill set he can play second, short, third, any of the three, and we feel really good about that. Switch bat and he's got power. Mike [Rizzo] has a focus to build this team up the middle, traditionally, and we feel like we've gotten younger and more athletic in those positions with Ian Desmond, eventually Wilson Ramos and Espi."
After "gradutating" players like Desmond and Espinosa to the majors, Mr. Harris said, "Our full waves of players are really going to be in Hagerstown and Potomac," this season, where most of the development will take place. "Kris Kline and his staff have done a tremendous job, we are really excited about a lot of the drafted players that are coming in, but those are our waves, and as we build the organization to be a self-sustaining organization, those are our waves moving forward." For one player in particular, 2010 4th Round pick A.J. Cole, Mr. Harris says, "The sky is the limit for A.J. Cole. He's a tall right-hander, he's got a very developed lower half. When the upper body catches up with the lower half he's got a chance to be a real physical kid. A very quick arm, he's got some power to the breaking ball, and he's a tremendous competitor. That for me was the steal of the draft."
"We're really excited. Like I said, Kris [Kline] and his staff have done a great job. You throw A.J. Cole in there with Robbie Ray and Sammy Solis and we feel really good about what we've got coming. Those guys have done a really good job of restocking the system and we're excited about it moving forward."