The announcement by MLB Commissioner Bud Selig that the Nationals had taken "outfielder" Bryce Harper No. 1 overall was no accident. The Nationals have decided to move him to the outfield, general manager Mike Rizzo said, with the belief that relieving Harper from learning the intricacies of catching will help him reach the majors quicker.
"We believe that he could pull off being a major league catcher. We think his bat is well ahead of his defense as a catcher," Rizzo said. "With the rigors of the game of catching - the squatting, the beating that they take behind the plate - we think it will accelerate his development in the minor leagues, and also extend his career as a major-leaguer."
Scouting director Kris Kline had seen Harper play in center field and right field, but the Nationals see the 17-year-old as a right fielder, with Rizzo calling him "the prototypical package" for the position.
The Nationals haven't discussed the outfield plan in the long term with Harper, Rizzo said. But he added, "His representative (Scott Boras) is aware of what our plans are. The player has acknowledged it, and we're all on the same page as far as what this does for his development."
"That's kind of where I see him in my mind's eye," Rizzo said. "A lot of things can change by the time he gets to the big leagues, but he certainly has all the capabilities and the package to be a corner outfielder."
Rizzo said he decided the Nationals would take Harper shortly after seeing him play about a month ago. The team had been planning to take Harper even longer than that, though, with a club source saying in April they believed he was far and away the best player in the draft and would be the pick barring a drastic change.
If Harper signs quickly - and Rizzo held out hope that he would want to get back on the field soon, despite adviser Scott Boras' reputation for lengthy negotiations - he could be in the majors within a couple years. Rizzo said Harper will start at the Nationals' Gulf Coast League affiliate in Viera, Fla., but added that Justin Upton was 17, just a few months older than Harper, when he took the shortstop No. 1 overall as Arizona's scouting director in 2005. If Harper's athleticism carries him in the minors and his swing adapts to professional baseball, it's not unrealistic to think he could reach the majors sometime in late 2012, especially with an early signing date.
"We know that we've got a player who wants to play," Rizzo said. "We've got a representative that we've dealt with successfully in the past. So we're going to give it our best effort on all sides."