When Bryce Harper was demoted to minor league camp back in spring training, he joked that it was probably for the best. Harper's rationale was that had he made the Nationals out of spring, when - not if - he started slow, people would've been all over him.
The basis for that wisecrack was that Harper has struggled early on at literally every new level of ball that he's reached.
It happened at the College of Southern Nevada, it happened at his professional stop at the Arizona Fall League, and then subsequently at low Single-A Hagerstown and Double-A Harrisburg.
And now it's happening at Triple-A Syracuse. Harper has failed to hit his stride out of the gate at Syracuse, batting just .232 with no home runs and one RBI in 14 games. The Nationals' No. 1 prospect has an on-base percentage of .295 and is slugging just .339.
Of course, after the initial acclimation process at each of his previous stops, Harper has eventually found a groove, and once he does, his numbers take off. Big time.
That's exactly what Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo expects to happen with Harper at Syracuse.
"I think it's an adjustment period for him," Rizzo said today. "It's a different kind of pitching than he's ever had in the minor leagues. You've got some hard-throwing prospects, and you also have some veteran, Triple-A/4-A type of pitchers that can really pitch and command their stuff. They're not the blazing fastballs, but they try to get you out different ways.
"He's got a good approach. He's still hitting the ball very, very hard. He'll make his adjustments. I'm not too concerned about it."
Harper's had issues against left-handed pitching this season, going just 3-for-19 (.158) with a southpaw on the mound. The good news, however, is that Harper has a hit in eight of his last 10 games, including today's 1-for-2 effort, with three walks.
One thing the Nationals are watching very closely with Harper is how he's progressing in center field and harnessing his aggressiveness on the bases.
The bulk of Harper's outfield experience coming into this season was at the corner spots, but he's playing primarily in center at Syracuse, as the Nationals feel he can help them at that position this season and possibly in years to come.
"Defensively he's coming along nicely." Rizzo said. "He plays two days in center and one day in the other outfield positions. He's taken good routes. His throwing is really improved. His accuracy in throwing has improved. And he's running the bases aggressively. He's doing a good job of both."