Mar. 14, 2012; Lake Buena Vista, FL, USA; Washington Nationals center fielder Bryce Harper in the dugout prior to the game against the Atlanta Braves at Champion Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-US PRESSWIRE
A then-18-year-old Bryce Harper was 7 for 18 (.389/.450/.556) with three doubles, a walk and three K's in 13 games for the Nats in Grapefruit League action in 2011 when the Washington Nationals optioned the 2010 no.1 overall pick to Class-A Hagerstown on March 12th. As D.C. GM Mike Rizzo told reporters at the time, as quoted in MLB.com's Bill Ladson's article entitled, "After win, Nats option Harper to Class A", Harper needed to, "... go to the Minor Leagues, get four or five at-bats per game and prepare himself for the season -- that's the reason we got him out. He was getting one or two at-bats per game, playing in spurts. He needs to be prepared for the season, get plenty of at-bats and get reps in the outfield.'"
Harper said all the right things last Spring, telling the Washington Post's Adam Kilgore in an article entitled, "Bryce Harper optioned to Class A Hagerstown, could play for the Nationals this year", he knew he wasn't going to make the Nats' Opening Day roster. "I understood that I wasn't going to make the team," the catcher-turned-outfielder said, "I understood that completely from the first day," but, he explained, he had to go out and play like he was competing for a spot on the major league roster. Harper started his first professional season with the Class-A Suns by posting a .318/.423/.461 line with five home runs in his first 78 plate appearances as a pro. When he was promoted to Double-A Harrisburg on July 4th, Harper had a .318/.423/.554 line, 17 doubles, 14 HR's and 19 stolen bases in 24 attempts over 72 games and 305 plate appearances...
As he had at every level from junior college to the Arizona Fall League and Class-A ball in the Nats' system, Harper started slow at Double-A with the Senators, with a .238/.300/.325 line in his first 90 plate appearances in July, but when he injured his hamstring in August, Harper had started to hit, with a .292/.375/.521 line over 56 plate appearances before what ended up being a season-ending hamstring injury. The next action Harper saw, after finishing his first season in the Nats' system with a combined .297/.392/.501 slash in 109 games and 452 plate appearances over which he had 24 doubles, 17 HR's and 26 stolen bases, was in his second stint in the Arizona Fall League.
Harper had played part-time in the AFL in 2010. As a regular member of the Scottsdale Scorpions' outfield, Harper was 31 for 93 (.333/.400/.634) with six doubles, two triples and six HR's in 25 games. The left-handed hitting, right-handed throwing, 6'3'', 225lb outfielder came into his second Spring Training with Nats' skipper Davey Johnson lobbying for the now-19-year-old phenom to be given a legitimate oppportunity to make the Opening Day roster and the Nats' GM promising his manager he'd keep an open mind about the decision.
Harper was 5 for 11 with five singles in four Grapefruit League games before a calf injury forced him to the sidelines for eight days, after which he told CBSSports.com's Jon Heyman he thought was probably not going to make the Nationals' Opening Day roster. Though the Nats' GM said no decision had been made at that point, two days later, after Harper had returned to the lineup and gone 3 for 18 with two doubles, a walk and nine K's in five games, the Nationals officially announced that they'd optioned the top outfield prospect in their organization to Triple-A Syracuse to start the 2012 season.
The Nationals' GM had previously stated explicitly (in an ESPN980 interview) that the decision on Harper was not going to be based on anything but his development, or as the general manager explained, the decision is, "... certainly not contract-based. It's not service-time based. It's going to be strictly based on the performance of the player and the development of the player and those are two distinct differentials."
CBSSports.com's Mr. Heyman (@JonHeymanCBS) revisited the conversation, tweeting after the decision to send Harper to the Class-AAA International League's Chiefs was announced, "I don't believe Harper was sent down [because] of [arbitration] or FA clocks," before quoting an anonymous Nats player who said, "'[Harper's] going to be special, but he isn't ready.'" NatsInsider.com's Mark Zuckerman did note in his article on the decision entitled, "Harper optioned to Syracuse", that, "If the Nationals wait 21 days to promote Harper, they would ensure he could not become a free agent until after the 2018 season," and if they wait until, "... mid-to-late June to promote Harper, they would stand to save millions of dollars down the road," by preventing the outfielder from reaching Super Two status for another year.
ESPN.com's Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) wrote after the decision was announced today that he'd talked to Davey Johnson who told him, "... about Harper's demotion. He gave two reasons: Wants him to have time in Class AAA, and work on CF play." Harper, Johnson continued, as reported by Mr. Olney, is, "The real deal. He doesn’t need to work on anything. He just needs to get ABs in Class AAA, so there won’t be...naysayers.'" Harper, once again saying the right things, told reporters including the Washington Times' Amanda Comak, "Hopefully that's the last time I'll get sent down, but it's what happens.'"
"I see him as a guy who doesn't need a whole lot of minor league seasoning," Mike Rizzo told MLB Network Radio hosts Jim Duquette and Kevin Kennedy in an early February interview, "but it never hurts a player to go and get some at bats at a lower level than the major leagues." Harper will start the 2012 campaign in Triple-A Syracuse, but barring any serious, setbacks, injuries or hiccups in his development, the 19-year-old outfielder will make his MLB debut at some point this season. For now it's Rick Ankiel, Roger Bernadina and Brett Carroll competing to play center on Opening Day alongside a hopefully healthy Michael Morse in left and Jayson Werth in right when the 2012 season starts nineteen days from now. Twenty-one days after that.... We'll see.