Rabu, 04 Januari 2012

Bryce Harper and 2012: Ready for MLB?

By now we are familiar with baseball's #1 prospect, perhaps the greatest prospect since A-Rod, Bryce Harper. His baseball resume is longer than half the players in the majors, and his level of sheer talent is probably higher than the other half. This winter, however, the Nationals leaked that they may be giving Harper a shot to compete for their MLB right field job out of spring training. It will be the goal of this entry to examine how and if that is the right thing to do.

How Good is Harper?

He's, like, kind of good. Once upon a time I wrote about Harper's amateur career:

His list of amateur accomplishments reads like a dream: All American 12-and-under team in 2005, 13-and-under in 2006, and not only an All American 14-and-under, but in 2007 he was the 14u Player of the Year. As a high school freshman he played in the Area Code Games in 2008, dominating seniors and juniors from all over Nevada. Of course, playing above his head is nothing new. Harper was playing against 6-year-olds when he was three, and when he was 12 he was carving up high school players in exhibitions all over the West coast.

The accolades did not stop after he finished his junior year of school. As a sophomore in 2009, he was Baseball America’s High School Player of the Year. As a 16-year-old sophomore. His 2009 included hitting the longest home run at the International Power Showcase in Tampa Bay, where he “…hit the longest home run in the history of Tropicana Field, home of the Tampa Bay Rays, … with a blast that would have flown farther than the measured 502 feet had it not smashed off the back wall of the dome.” (Tom Verducci, Sports Illustrated, June, 2009) He was not just a hitter, either. In that same article, Verducci wrote that Harper was fast enough to score from second on passed balls, and did so six times in his sophomore season. When pitching, he threw 96 mph, and when catching, threw runners out without getting out of the crouch.

Unfortunately for Harper, as dominant a player as he was, he was still two years away from graduating and being eligible for the MLB Amateur Player Draft. Wanting to get to the majors as soon as possible, Harper took and passed a GED, enrolled at Southern Nevada Junior College, and started there in the fall of 2009. He turned 17 that October.

His dominance did not stop after high school, as In 66 games, he hit 31 home runs and 98 RBI, posting a slash line of .443/.526/.987 (AVG/OBP/SLG). His 31 home runs just edged out the existing school record of 12. He would win the SWAC Player of the Year Award and the coveted Golden Pikes Award, handed out to the best college player in the country. At 17. Peter Gammons most aptly describes Harper’s special talent on display at SNJC:

“Harper, as everyone knows, was the age of a high school junior, went to Southern Nevada Junior College, and at the age of 17, became the youngest player to win the Golden Spikes Award as college baseball's best player -- four years younger than any previous winner. In a wood-bat league, the 220-pound Harper hit .443 with 31 homers and 98 RBIs.

There have been five previous high school-age position players taken as the first pick in the country in the last 25 years. Three -- Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez and Justin Upton -- were All-Stars by the age of 21. Chipper Jones was an All-Star at 23, a rise delayed by injury. Josh Hamilton is the one exception because of his detailed personal struggles, but he now can make the case to being the best player in the sport.

Griffey was 18 and hit seven homers his senior year in high school. Jones was 18 and hit five. Rodriguez was 18 and hit nine. Upton was 17 and hit 11. All with aluminum bats. To repeat: Harper at 17 played in a JUCO division and hit 31 homers.” (MLB.com, August 15, 2010)

Since then he has dominated elite prospects in the Arizona Fall League twice (1.039 OPS in 2010 (as the second-youngest player in the league's history), 1.034 in 2011), beat up on MLB competition (sort of) in 2011 Spring Training (.389 average) and destroyed Single-A Ball in 2011 (.977 OPS in 305 PA). He even hit pretty well (.724 OPS) in Double-A, as, at 18, the youngest player in the league. Which brings us to Spring Training, 2012.

Is it a Good Idea for the Nationals?

Simply, not really. Washington is currently slated for an outfield of, left to right, Mike Morse, Roger Bernadina, and Jayson Werth. Now, while Morse is one of their better hitters, after Werth's forgettable 2011, this is not a trio of world-beaters; but that is not to say that the three of them do not make a passable outfield, especially for a team not expected to compete in 2012.

When you talk about calling Harper up you have to consider the cost/reward: cost: ruining the development of the best prospect in the last 20 years/ever; reward: probably not that great. Harper struggled a bit against Double-A pitching last season, which is fine for an 18-year-old, but not something you throw into the fire at the major league level. He showed a little power against improved competition (.140 ISO), and even, honestly, held his own (103 RC+) overall, but what does that mean at the major-league level?

Well, that doesn't translate so well. According to the MLEs I've used for minor league players, his Double-A numbers translate to a .207/.266/.308 batting line at the major league level -- or, .219/.282/.327 if you account for the aging process. That is hardly a major league player, certainly not a corner outfielder, and not even an improvement over the well-below-average Bernadina.

Perhaps the main deterrent to giving Harper MLB time is just that: time. Harper, represented by Scott Boras, probably isn't going to be signing any Evan Longoria deals, given that he could retire a billionaire if everything goes his way in the next 20 years. With that in mind, the Nationals should be conscious (and are likely aware) of the likelihood that they are only going to get 6-odd years of Harper, and it would not be wise to be wasting those years on his developmental time. It should be a punishable crime to waste an entire year of Harper's service time on a year of callups and demotions, failure at the major league level, and more callups.

Is it a Good Idea for Harper?

Again, not really. If you would allow a Justin Upton comparison, Upton raked at Double-A as a 19 year old (.955 OPS) but struggled to find his rhythm as either a 19 or 20-year-old at the MLB level (94 OPS+ over that time). Now keep in mind that Harper is younger than Upton, will be younger than Upton, and hasn't had the upper-level success that Upton did. Additionally, as Ben Lindbergh shows here, there is a direct (if not magnificent) correlation between spending time in the minors and the ability to contribute at the major league level. Should Harper be rushed (and I do believe it would be rushing him) to the majors, he would be forfeiting valuable developmental time that he can not get back at any time during his life.

This is a guy who has never failed at anything, on a baseball diamond, in his life. When he's in the box, he hits. When he was catching, he would throw you out. When he's on the team, the team wins the game; that's just the way it is. Obviously he is going to have to start to fail at some point -- Ted Williams himself made an out more often than not -- but is it ideal to have him fail for the first real time in front of 30 000 fans, with dozens of cameras on him, wearing the logo of the team he is supposed to save almost single-handedly? Probably not. Better to let him learn to fail at his own pace in front of four thousand fans a night.

The Bottom Line

I don't think Harper has a fair chance to win the right field job. It's probably likely that he out-hits Bernadina in Spring Training, and he could out-hit Werth, and Morse, and Adam LaRoche and Ryan Zimmerman and Albert Pujols, for what it's worth, but it won't matter. I think the Nationals are dangling a carrot in front of Harper, daring him not to come to Spring Training ready to compete for a MLB job. As I said, this is a guy who has met only success in his athletic life. He plays, acts, and speaks with an air of entitlement, and, above all, he has earned it. The key in his development might very well be just keeping him motivated for the next 12 months until he is a full-fledged MLB player.

There is a good shot he sees MLB action this season, and it is looking likely that he is the starting right fielder by Opening Day 2013 at the latest, but he is not ready for that job now, and it is in the Nationals' best interest to keep him from it. Keep him motivated, keep him working, and the Nationals will have the greatest player in the history of their great franchise.

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