It’s mid-May, and Bryce Harper is giving those South Atlantic League pitchers what-fer on a seemingly daily basis. A long hitting streak - with genuine run production - has Nats Nation in a sweat. Barely a day goes by without an email or two from some entirely well-meaning fan asking if the young man might get to Southeast D.C. more sooner than later.
I wouldn’t hold my breath.
While I would not discount the possibility that, if you put Harper in a big league lineup today, he wouldn’t hold his own, it’s that other possibility - that he might not - that will keep him on the Nationals’ schedule of ascension.
Harper’s a cinch to be an all-star for Single-A Hagerstown, and that’s a desirable goal for everyone at this point. The league’s All-Star Game is set for June 21 in Salisbury, Md., home of the Delmarva Shorebirds. It would be my guess - based on conversations with some player development types - that Harper would appear in that game, and then hit the beach - Myrtle Beach, S.C. - to join the Potomac Nationals as they start the Carolina League season’s second half. While’s he’s there he can stop in and visit my sister, who I’m sure will say, “Bryce who?” when he introduces himself.
The Nationals want to make sure that Harper can comfortably withstand the rigors of a 140-game minor league schedule before they subject him to a 162-game schedule in the majors. It makes sense, and no one really doubts he won’t be able to do that. It’s simple: When you’ve invested millions into perhaps the best hitting prospect to surface in 25 or more years, you don’t repeat the mistakes made by other franchises with teenage players over the years. Would Harper rather be in the big leagues today? Of course he would, but he understands how the business works, and from all reports, is a solid and quite gracious teammate.
Someone asked me recently if I thought Harper would switch to No. 7 once he hits D.C. If you haven’t heard, he wears No. 34 - which adds up to 7 - to honor the late Mickey Mantle, his baseball idol. Some years back on an amateur team, he wanted No. 7, but when it wasn’t available, went for No. 34, which I think he’ll wear forever. Baseball players are creatures of habit, and I think he’ll respect all of the fans who’ve bought replica merchandise with his name and 34 on the back.
Nationals’ fans can consider themselves fortunate that Harper’s minor league career has gotten started in their backyard. Hagerstown is a fairly short drive, and Pfitzner Stadium in Woodbridge, Va., isn’t far, either. Even Harrisburg wouldn’t require an overnight stay, so opportunities to see him are ample well before he’s delivered to the bigs. If you’ve never patronized the local minor league clubs, you’re missing some solid entertainment at a very reasonable price - not to mention the fact that it’s far easier to get player autographs in the minors, if you’re into that kind if thing.