Bryce Harper following Nationals' plan


PHOENIX -- During spring training in Viera, Fla., this past March, I spent some time with Washington Nationals senior vice president and general manager Mike Rizzo on the field prior to batting practice and asked him about the team’s development plan for last year’s first overall pick in the draft, Bryce Harper.

Rizzo told me the plan was for Harper to start the year in Hagerstown of the South Atlantic League and, if all went well, he would skip high A (Potomoc) and go directly to Harrisburg, the Nationals' Double-A affiliate. All went well for Harper at Hagerstown. He had a .977 OPS with 17 doubles, 49 runs scored, 14 home runs and 46 RBIs to go along with 19 stolen bases and a .423 on base percentage. Not to say there weren’t a few issues along he way, like blowing a kiss to an opposing pitcher, Greensboro's Zachary Neal, after they exchanged words over Harper’s home run trot.

Rizzo celebrated the Fourth of July holiday and brought fireworks to D.C., perhaps matching those that took place at the White House, by promoting Harper to Double-A and staying on plan. In his so far short stay at Harrisburg, Harper is hitting a robust .357 in 16 plate appearances.

The next exciting trip along the Harper Development Plan was Sunday's Futures Game. I ran into Harper on Saturday night at a restaurant in Phoenix, where he was having dinner with former Dodger great Steve Garvey and their families.

Harper talked about how honored he was to play in the Futures Game, and how much he looked forward to shooting hoops with some of the NBA's Phoenix Suns players and, more importantly, his plans to visit a local Children's Hospital to help bring a smile and support to kids that need a boost.

Then it was off to batting practice at the "Hanger," baseball’s nickname for the Arizona Diamondbacks' Chase Field, which looks more like an airport hanger than it does a baseball park.

With the national media standing wall-to-wall around the batting cage, Harper started putting on a clinic that included moonshots to the restaurants in right and left field at Chase Field. He was the buzz of the pregame, leading some of us to call it Bryce Harper Day.

When the game started, his first at-bat was a disappointment as Julio Teheran, a pitching prospect in the Atlanta Braves organization, struck him out on a 95-mph fastball on the outside corner that not even Jose Bautista, Albert Pujols or Miguel Cabrera would have hit. In his next at-bat, Harper grounded out to second base on the first pitch he saw, a 96-mph fastball that was thrown by Seattle Mariners left-handed pitching prospect James Paxton. Harper again demonstrated how hard he plays the game, running as hard as he could all the way through the bag even though it was an easy out. His last two at-bats were the same a ground out and a struck out, the latter on a 97-mph fastball by Kelvin Herrera of the Kansas City Royals.

Harper did miss a cutoff man in the game, but showed off his incredible throwing arm. He admitted after the game that he was “trying to show it off. If it was a real game, I would have tried to hit the cutoff man.”

I could argue from a baseball perspective that showing off would have included hitting the cutoff man, but it was an impressive reminder that he has one of the best outfield arms in minor league baseball. We all talk about his potential with his bat, power and glove. We'll make sure to include his arm from now on. The 0-for-4 he had on Sunday means nothing. He’s still the best prospect in all of minor league baseball.

He handled himself extremely well after the game, talking about how happy and excited he was that fellow teenager Mike Trout was promoted to the big leagues by the Angels and when asked about his own timetable he responded, "I have no clue."

That’s because he’s letting Rizzo and the Nationals' player development department do their jobs, including making the decision when he'll get called up to the major leagues.

Rizzo told me in spring training that Harper's development plan for Harper was to finish 2011 in Double-A and then attend the Arizona Fall League. If all goes well, he’d make his major league debut sometime in 2012. Rizzo is always organized and well prepared. When he puts together a plan, he normally follows it without deviation. He had a plan and timetable for Stephen Strasburg and stuck to it, not promoting him until last June for both baseball and business (arbitration and Super 2 status) reasons. Except for the unfortunate injury to Strasburg last year (Tommy John surgery on his right elbow last year), Rizzo's plan worked out. Strasburg, by the way, has started to throw and is expected to pitch in minor league games in August with an outside chance of pitching again in the majors this September.

Harper is on his way to stardom, but under the Nationals' development plan -- unlike Trout -- his major league debut will probably be in 2012. That is unless, of course, the Nationals are in a pennant race and he plays so well that ... never mind.

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