Just when you thought the cost to draft Bryce Harper couldn’t get any higher, the Nationals’ 19 year old phenom gives you yet another reason to allocate more of your draft day budget his way. With a single in his first at-bat during Tuesday’s game between the Scottsdale Scorpions and the Peoria Javelinas, Harper extended his hit streak to 11 games in the highly competitive, prospect-laden Arizona Fall League. In his second at-bat, he drilled a two-run shot to centerfield and posted his fourth multi-hit game in his last five and fifth in this 11 game run. After a slow start in which he had just three hits in his first 27 at bats, Harper has made the necessary adjustments and is now hitting .290 with 5 HR and 20 RBI through 16 games. He’s also kicked in three stolen bases, has a .357 OBP, and owns a .913 OPS right now. There is no blue-light special to be had here. If you want him, it’s time to get your fantasy checkbook ready.
OK, now that I have your attention, let’s back up just a little bit. Yes, Harper seems to be the real deal and if everything goes according to plan — the Nationals’ plan, that is — he will be tearing it up in the majors soon enough. But is now the time? This is Harper’s second stint in the Arizona Fall League, and while he has shown, once again, that with a little bit of time he can master any level on which he is playing, the likelihood of him beginning the season in Triple-A is high. Single-A seemed like a breeze for him, but he did only hit .256 in his 37 Double-A games last year, and his ISO dropped to a .140 mark. Granted, 137 plate appearances is too small a sample size to pay much mind, but he did look like he could use a little more seasoning. The current production here in the AFL though, coupled with even a decent spring, should be enough to just start him in Triple-A and let him move up from there.
Then, obviously there’s the financial and ownership rights aspect — the free agency clock, arbitration years, etc. Despite his immense talent, the Nationals are going to want to keep him under the organization’s thumb for as long as possible. Even a call up in May is better for the team in the long run. Mike Rizzo may not be following Andrew Friedman’s blueprint to a tee, but with his current group of prospects, he is certainly thinking long term.
All that being said, it should be very interesting to see what the Nats do in free agency this winter. Jayson Werth may have right field locked down, but with Laynce Nix, Jonny Gomes and Rick Ankiel all free agents, the team has some openings in the outfield. Going with a veteran right fielder and Roger Bernadina in center is a strong possibility, but with some of the early promotions we’ve seen around the majors, such as Mike Trout and Jason Heyward, you’d be foolish to write off Harper as just a minor leaguer this season. With a solid spring, a good start in Triple-A, and the right attitude (often an underrated factor), I think we could be looking at a mid-season call up. He’ll probably struggle at first, but with a run of some consistent at bats, a .295-12-52 second half line isn’t out of the question. Bid accordingly in your draft, but unless you’re in a keeper league, there’s no reason to reach too high this year.
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