Wednesday, October 13, 2010, 1:48 p.m., Updated at 3:37 p.m.
By Mark Zuckerman
Bryce Harper will celebrate his 18th birthday this weekend at home in Las Vegas. Then he'll make the short trip to Scottsdale, Ariz., and immediately start facing the toughest competition of his brief baseball career.
The Washington Nationals have added the No. 1 draft pick to their roster of players participating in the Arizona Fall League, an elite "finishing school" generally reserved for top prospects who have already played at the Class AA or Class AAA level.
Harper, of course, has yet to play at any official minor-league level, aside from about three weeks in Viera, Fla., at the instructional league. But Nationals officials believe the catcher-turned-outfielder (who turns 18 on Saturday) needs to get as much playing experience as he can this offseason, so they're sending him to Arizona to serve as a member of the Scottsdale Scorpions' "taxi squad."
"I recognize that this kid is going into a situation that is pretty unprecedented," Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said. "He's going to be an 18-year-old player in an extremely accelerated league. But we feel the trade-off of getting this kid to work out for two months in that environment was well worth the opportunity of him struggling a little bit in such an advanced league. With this kid's ability level and this kid's attitude, it's certainly not going to retard his progress."
AFL teams play six games per week, but taxi squad members are only allowed to play on Wednesdays and Saturdays (unless they're replacing an injured teammate). So Harper, who is expected to make his debut next Wednesday against the Mesa Solar Sox, will receive limited playing time.
Harper, though, will be able to participate in all pregame workouts and sit in the dugout during games even when he's not eligible to play. Club officials believe that experience will be worth it, both on the field and in the clubhouse alongside teammates who are anywhere from four to eight years older than him.
Rizzo and manager Jim Riggleman were among those who watched Harper play in the instructional league last week. The former College of Southern Nevada star had his ups and downs in his first taste of professional baseball, but he showed progress over the last few weeks and wound up hitting .319 (15-for-47) with four homers, 12 RBI and seven walks.
The Nationals don't believe Harper is as close to big-league ready as the other players currently in the AFL -- Rizzo said he'll still open 2011 at either low-Class A Hagerstown or high-Class A Potomac -- but they'd rather him get more experience over the next month against higher competition than work out on his own at home.
"I just felt we weren't doing him justice by sending him home and working out with a high school team and lifting weights on his own," Rizzo said. "This an opportunity for us to have this guy immersed into baseball for two more months at an accelerated rate with great players around him, for a lot of that stuff to rub off on him and really learn the professional game at probably its highest level other than the big leagues."
Seven other Nationals prospects are already playing for the Scorpions, who are led by Class AA Harrisburg manager Randy Knorr: right-handers Adam Carr, Cole Kimball and Brad Peacock, left-hander Sammy Solis (their second-round pick in this summer's draft), catcher Derek Norris, infielder Steve Lombardozzi and outfielder Michael Burgess. Carr, 26, is the only player from the group with Class AAA experience. Kimball, Peacock, Solis and Burgess have all played at Class AA. Solis and Norris are participating as the Nationals' two allotted exemptions.
Major League Baseball, which owns and operates the AFL, granted an extra exemption to allow Harper to play off the taxi squad. His participation figures to draw increased attention to the league, which benefited significantly from Stephen Strasburg's performance last fall.