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Nats pleased with Harper's development

July 08, 2011|By BOB PARASILITI | bobp@herald-mail.com
  • Harrisburg Senators outfielder Bryce Harper signs autographs before a game against the Erie SeaWolves on Wednesday. Harper's impressive stats with the Hagerstown Suns earned the 18-year-old a promotion Monday to Double-A as part of the Washington Nationals' measured approach with last year's No. 1 overall draft pick.
Associated Press

The first chapter of Bryce Harper’s saga as a professional baseball player has been completed.

The Washington Nationals’ top prospect completed his three-month stay as a member of the Hagerstown Suns on Sunday night when he was promoted to Double-A Harrisburg. Harper’s tenure in Hagerstown was part of Washington’s grand plan to teach the 18-year-old the pace and rigors of professional baseball.

Harper became a lightning rod from the moment he set foot in Hagerstown. In the midst of it all, he managed to hit .318 with 14 home runs and 46 RBIs in 72 games. The Suns finished the first half with a 40-30 record and just missed winning the South Atlantic League Northern Division’s first-half title.

He showed glimpses of both brilliance and immaturity and a propensity to cause controversy. He also showed he can play the game of baseball — not perfectly, but that is why he was sent to Hagerstown.

The opinions on Harper’s ability and character were varied, and he added fuel to his own fire with some of the comments he made about his time here over the last week.

But the bottom line is, only one opinion of Harper counts — that of the Washington Nationals.

“(Washington general manager Mike Rizzo) and I were talking about his development when it came to making the move,” said Doug Harris, Washington’s director of player development. “I said if you think back to June 6, 2010, when we selected Bryce, if we said that he would (have done this well) in the year after the draft, everyone would be extremely happy. We are extremely happy with his development.”

Harper accomplished just about everything the Nationals could have wanted on the field with the Suns. The numbers may not have been as eye-popping as many expected for a player who signed a $9.9 million contract. Many laymen say the 18-year-old hasn’t improved on his fundamentals and personal awareness.

But they aren’t seeing the picture that Harris and the Nationals have been staring at.

“Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but most aren’t privy to the day-to-day happenings,” Harris said. “He picked up a ton of experience. (Suns manager Brian Daubach and hitting coach Marlon Anderson) did a tremendous job working with him. The whole staff has done a fantastic job working with all the players in Hagerstown.”

Fans and writers look at numbers. Organizations know the talent level when they sign a player. Harper’s key to leaving Hagerstown was learning to deal with pro baseball’s lifestyle.

“This was his first experience of playing in championship baseball,” Harris said. “He had to deal with developing a routine to prepare and be ready to play on a daily basis. It is an experience because many first-year players have never played more than 80 games in a season. Right now, many of them are seeing the dog days of the first-year experience. It’s all things they all face. We are doing everything we can to get them through it.”

The grind of travel and playing every day tends to catch up with players and extra rest is the best remedy. Harper may have been on the edge of experiencing the same effects, but he received an unplanned respite before the promotion with a thumb injury, which made his final three weeks here miserable.

“He was having some frustration,” Harris said. “He was battling through his sore thumb and he was constantly hearing reports that a move was imminent. He’s a young player and he wants to move up. He was battling through a lot of distractions.

“Battling through the thumb injury allowed him to get the added rest. Now he should be ready to go.”

Harper suffered a left thumb bruise, caused by the number of inside pitches he was forced to handle and prolonged by the constant pounding of batting practice. The injury forced him to miss seven games in the final three weeks with Hagerstown.

Harper’s improvement was more about the nuances of the game as opposed to statistics. He was listed as a catcher when he was drafted, but is being converted into an outfielder to fully use his strong arm, save his legs and add longevity to his powerful bat.

“He improved in the outfield in his routes to balls and his reads defensively,” Harris said. “He likes to throw. That isn’t unique to Bryce. Guys with strong arms like to throw and show what they’ve got. That is a good thing, but we will be trying to channel that.”

He played primarily in right field in Hagerstown, but also played some in center. In Harrisburg, he’s seeing time in left field.

“We want to allow him to get used to playing on the other side of the field,” Harris said. “When you play the corner position, you need to be able to adjust to different spins on the ball. We want to get him used to it, plus with the way we are set up (on the Nationals) right now, we want to open up all the options.”

Another grading point for Harper was his base running. Although he ran himself into some outs with the Suns, he showed an ability to steal bases, collecting 19 in 24 tries here, including five in the last week.

“On (July 2), he went out and stole two bases in situations when everyone knew he was going to be running,” Harris said. “He has been doing the finer things that the casual fan doesn’t normally see.”

Those are the attributes that fans will probably see more readily in Harrisburg as Harper continues his climb to the majors.

From here on, Harper will be playing with players who are more polished and more experienced. Harris said perceptions of Harper will begin changing.

“In Hagerstown, he was the guy everyone was out to beat,” Harris said. “In Harrisburg, he will be the guy who they have to get out just because he is batting in that spot of the batting order.”

It is possible that Harper’s numbers could actually improve at the Double-A level as he faces better pitchers with more experienced umpires behind the plate. Both would contribute to a more consistent strike zone.

He will also have the luxury of playing with more experienced teammates.

“Harrisburg has a great staff and a good team,” Harris said. “Those guys will rub off on Harper. (Former Sun) Billy Rhinehart is playing for Harrisburg. He has been playing there for a couple of years and is starting to round into his own. Bill is a left-handed hitter with power, like Bryce, and he can talk to him about pitchers and show him what to look for. It will only help him.”

One of the biggest raps against Harper is his off-field demeanor. He is considered arrogant because he has provided limited media sessions and hasn’t fulfilled the endless demands of fans for autographs. It has left an impression of entitlement, which has soured many.

The indelible mark came on June 6 — the anniversary of his draft date — with the now infamous kiss incident. Harper was caught on camera blowing a kiss to Greensboro pitcher Zac Neal after homering, and video of the incident made national news.

“The whole kiss thing went out of proportion,” Harris said. “The closer he gets and the more he moves north, people will finally know who he is. He is an awesome talent who has worked very hard and he is a passionate player. That’s maturity.

“He has done a magnificent job as a young man dealing with the things he faced in Hagerstown,” Harris said. “When he came to bat for the first time in Harrisburg, he was as calm as I have ever seen him. It was great to see.”

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