When will Bryce Harper make his Nats debut?

When will Bryce Harper make his Nats debut?
November 4, 2011, 1:24 pm
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This just in: Bryce Harper is really good.

OK, so that's not exactly breaking news, but what the 19-year-old phenom has been doing for the last week in Arizona is bordering on the ludicrous.

After going 3-for-3 with a homer and two walks yesterday, Harper has posted the following stat line over his last six games: .522 average (12-for-23), five homers, 17 RBI and a 1.794 OPS that is too gargantuan to believe.

Remember that sluggish start he got off to in the Arizona Fall League? Yeah, that's kind of a thing of the past now. In 17 overall games with the Scottsdale Scorpions, Harper is now batting .323 with six homers, 23 RBI, a .400 on-base percentage and a .677 slugging percentage that ranks second in the AFL behind only Padres third baseman Jedd Gyorko (.702).

Now, the competition level in the AFL ain't exactly chump change. If anything, this is as impressive a collection of talent as you'll see in baseball outside of the major leagues. These are the best Class AA and Class AAA prospects in the game, and a large number of these guys will be significant contributors for their big-league clubs in 2012.

Which would seem to indicate Harper might just be ready to contribute to the Nationals come Opening Day.

Except, it's not that simple. It never is.

For all his offensive heroics, Harper remains a work-in-progress in the outfield. This is especially true in left field, where he has played some in Arizona and where he continues to need some work. He does look more comfortable in right field, but there's a reason he might not play that corner position when he arrives in D.C.: Jayson Werth, who merely has six years and 102 million remaining on his contract.

Could Harper bump Werth to another spot in the outfield? Sure. But the safer bet appears to have the kid begin his major-league career in left field, with Werth staying in his familiar right field perch.

Even if Harper had established his readiness in the field, there's still some question about his overall readiness given his lack of experience at the upper levels of the minor leagues. He played in only 37 games at Class AA Harrisburg this year, batting a pedestrian .256 with three homers before a hamstring strain prematurely ended his first pro season.

General manager Mike Rizzo has said on more than one occasion he wants Harper to "master" each level of the minor leagues before he earns his final promotion to the Show. It's hard to make the case he's already mastered Class AA. And it's impossible to make the case he's already mastered Class AAA, since he's never set foot in Syracuse.

Even if all that wasn't true and Harper had clearly established his readiness on and off the field, his inclusion on the Opening Day roster still faces a major roadblock: Baseball's arbitration system, which encourages teams to hold back top prospects' debuts until June to avoid them attaining "Super 2" status and thus earning millions more dollars than they would if they were called up after the annual cutoff point.

This is what the Nationals did with Stephen Strasburg in 2010, and there's every reason to believe they intend to do the same with Harper (assuming the yet-to-be-finalized new CBA between owners and players doesn't drastically alter the system).

Is it fair to the dozens of prospects who every year get held back for a couple of months for purely financial reasons? No. But this is the system in which baseball operates, and GMs are wise to exploit it and ensure young talent like Harper remains under their original team's control for another season before they've accrued enough service time to declare for free agency.

Am I saying there's zero chance Harper is in the Nationals' lineup April 5 at Wrigley Field? No, there's always a chance.

But the safe bet continues to be on Harper to open 2012 in the minors (either back at Harrisburg or up at Syracuse). His timeline for promotion after that depends entirely on his performance and attitude.

If he does everything right, Harper will be in D.C. come June 2012. If he looks like he still needs some more seasoning, that debut could be delayed until September.

Regardless, we have every reason to believe we'll see Harper in the majors at some point next year. And the more he tears the cover off the ball like he's done for the last week in Arizona, the more plausible a sped-up timeline becomes.