Baseball America’s top Nats prospects - No. 1: Bryce Harper

“You want to talk Bryce? He is sitting right here”, then-College of Southern Nevada coach Tim Chambers said to me over the phone a couple of years ago.

Bryce Harper was getting ready for his first and only season of collegiate baseball for the Las Vegas-based junior college and regularly sat in his coach’s office talking baseball or reading books.

That day, Harper was reading a biography of Willie Mays. He was pleasant, positive and soft-spoken. Harper would talk about baseball and his new team, how he wanted them to be good, and his desire to just go out there and play hard every day.

It was a much different time then, talking to Harper. I had reached out to Chambers after Sports Illustrated did a cover story on the exploits of the teenager with the big bat. Chambers and I would talk occasionally about the team and his young star.

Chambers would go over what Harper would be doing on the field and the practices the team would go through before the season even began. I asked Chambers if it was true about the 500-foot home runs and the amazing tools the magazine article had boasted. He said the stories were true. Chambers said Harper was amazing and he had never seen anything like him on the baseball diamond.

Many thought of Harper as the top prospect coming out of high school at that time. Later, he was rated as the No. 1 prospect on draft boards. Harper was taken as the No. 1 overall selection by the Nationals.

He went on to low Single-A Hagerstown Suns to start the 2011 season and then the Double-A Harrisburg Senators the first week of July. Harper hit a combined .297 with 17 homers and 58 RBIs in 108 games at the minor league level.

Just last month, Harper excelled as an everyday player in Arizona Fall League with the Scottsdale Scorpions. Following a 1-for-16 start, Harper exploded at the plate, going 30-for-77 (.389) with six homers and 26 RBIs. In the final week of the season, Harper hit .429 with three doubles, one triple, two homers and eight RBIs.

Baseball America again ranked all of the Nationals’ top talent and it was no surprise that national writer Aaron Fitt had Harper rated as the franchise’s No. 1 overall prospect.

“Harper again showed he has top-line power, arm strength and is an improved baserunner,” Fitt said. “He was amazing this season. There is not much he can’t do.”

We had a question during this week’s live video chat about Harper, where he will play next year and what position in the outfield.

I believe he will start the season in Double-A, where baseball always likes to put its best prospects. I still think starting the season there will have several advantages, some short-term and some long-term. Harper is very familiar with his surroundings, his teammates and the coaching staffing in Harrisburg. It is where he is most comfortable.

Also, if Harper hits the cover off the ball for two months in the minors again this coming season, the Nationals would still wait until after June 1 to call him up, thus avoiding Super Two eligibility. By doing this, the Nationals would get an extra year out of him before having to pay out the big money he would likely command in arbitration.

As for his outfield position, I would expect he would remain in left field. You could see a scenario playing out where he would be in left field or right field with the Nationals, which any combination of Jayson Werth, Michael Morse and/or a speedy/leadoff-type center fielder thrown into the mix.

Then there is spring training, where manager Davey Johnson said last season Harper made it as difficult as possible in trying to convince the Nationals to bring him north come opening day. With another year under his belt and proven ability to hit at the Double-A and AFL levels, it would not be surprising to see Harper excel at an even greater height with the Nationals in Viera, Fla. Would it be enough for the Nats to scrap their plan of holding him off until past June 1? It could interesting because of the talent this particular 19-year-old already possesses.

Another scenario could play out: Let’s predict the Nationals contend for the first few months of the 2012 season at the top of the National League East. Similar to the way the 2007 Arizona Diamondbacks brought up then 19-year-old phenom Justin Upton in a pennant race, the Nationals could easily promote Harper onto a contending team for the stretch run into the postseason. There would be less pressure for Harper to have to be the man and he could blend in with a contingent of veterans like Werth, Adam LaRoche and Ryan Zimmerman.

A lot of stars would have to align for all of this to occur, but there are a world of possibilities for Harper because he is such a special player. These scenarios are made more compelling since Harper has demonstrated he deserves that top prospect status.

Now we get to see how it plays out in Viera in a couple of months.

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