Nationals GM Mike Rizzo talked to a handful of reporters a few minutes ago via conference call about the decision to send Bryce Harper to the Arizona Fall League. Rizzo said he had been planning to send Harper to the AFL when the 17-year-old went to the team’s instructional league team in Florida, but the Nationals needed to see him work in Florida and shake off the rust that had developed over a few months of not playing baseball.
“He hadn’t seen live pitches in five months, and you have some of the brightest prospects in the lower minor leagues in the instructional league,” Rizzo said. “It took him a while to get his stroke back. But by the end of instructional league, he was handling the bat extremely well. The numbers he put up are terrific. I don’t put a lot of stock into stats in those type of situations, the Arizona Fall League or the Florida instructiona league, but he did show that he certainly was not over his head.”
Rizzo knows the Nationals are throwing Harper into a virtually “unprecedented” situation by sending him to the elite prospect league two days after he turns 18. The Mets set outfielder Fernando Martinez there at 18, but Harper will be only the second 18-year-old to play there.
And if there’s a price to be paid for Harper’s youth by having him struggle early as he gets his bearings against some of the game’s top prospects, Rizzo said the trade-off is “well worth it.”
“The guys that go to that league go to the big leagues extremely soon,” Rizzo said. “He’s going to go out there and just grind away, get his work in. We’re going to have people out there to see him. It played into the decision-making process that (Double-A Harrisburg manager) Randy Knorr is the manager of that ballclub (the Scottsdale Scorpions). He’s one of the top developmental guys we have in our system. We feel very comfortable having Randy put him through his paces. We’ll tweak his approach at the plate, work on the nuances of his swing. He’ll be immersed in baseball 24-7.”
The league doesn’t dictate the timetable of when Harper could rise through the ranks and reach the majors; Rizzo said Harper will start next season in Single-A ball and move from there when he’s ready. But the experience Harper gets working in right field with Single-A Hagerstown coach Tony Tarasco and adjusting his swing to elite pitching could pay dividends sooner than later.
“We weren’t doing him justice to send him home and have him working out with the high school team,” Rizzo said. “This is an opportunity to learn the professional game at its highest level beyond the big leagues.”