The Washington Nationals didn’t anticipate Bryce Harper’s major league debut to come this quickly, this hurriedly and on a weekend series across the country. But already without their cleanup hitter and needing to put third baseman Ryan Zimmerman on the disabled list with right AC joint inflammation, the Nationals made the decision to call-up baseball’s most hyped power-hitting prospect.
Harper will make his major league debut Saturday at Dodger Stadium. He will play left field and likely bat seventh. And the Nationals have no plans to call him up to watch him sit on the bench.
“Suffice it to say, this isn’t the coming out party for Bryce that we had in mind,” said Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo, who watched Harper play with Triple-A Syracuse for three days this week before making the decision. “This isn’t the optimal situation developmentally for Bryce.
“It’s to support the major league club in really a time that we need an offensive player who can play corner outfield,” Rizzo said. “We still have a very good and committed developmental plan in place for Bryce. I still believe very passionately in the plan but this was expedited by the circumstances — by two of our middle-of-the-lineup guys going down in [Michael Morse] and Ryan Zimmerman — and we thought that we needed to bring in an impactful left-handed bat that could play the corner outfield.”
Morse won’t be available until at least June as he heals from a torn right lat muscle and Zimmerman, who saw Dr. Neal ElAttrache in Los Angeles on Friday morning, is expected to need more rest for his inflamed right shoulder. Zimmerman is not believed to need much more time, if any, than the disabled list allows and will be eligible to come off it by May 6.
The Nationals have had a plan in place for Harper’s development since before they tabbed the 19-year-old with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 draft. When they sent Harper to minor league camp midway through spring training this year, calling him up to the big leagues this soon was not a part of that plan. Harper was to go to Triple-A, learn center field and join the big league club when he could be fill their need for an everyday center fielder.
But the Nationals were dying for offensive production, even before Zimmerman went down with an injury, and the players they’ve had filling in for Morse in left field have combined for an .097 batting average, .207 on-base percentage and .125 slugging percentage. Even if Harper is not as ready as the Nationals wanted him to be before they made this jump, the feeling is that he can’t do much worse than that.
“He’s just a good ballplayer,” said manager Davey Johnson. “And he has earned the right to have this opportunity. We have a need for a left-handed hitter. He fits the role, and it’s the right move.”
“If it doesn’t workout in the major leagues, we certainly can send him down,” Rizzo said, referencing what the Los Angeles Angels did with fellow outfield phenom Mike Trout in 2011. That idea, though, represents a departure for Rizzo and the Nationals who’ve maintained from the moment they selected Harper than they would prefer his first major league call-up to be his last.
The Nationals left Harper in the minor leagues just long enough to ensure they’d retain his rights through the 2018 season.
“I believe we’re going to get the best out of Bryce Harper, and this is going to be a good aid in developing what I believe is going to be quite a player in the big leagues,” Rizzo said, leaving open the door for the Nationals to desert any plan that would involve Harper returning to the minor leagues by excelling when he arrives.
“That is a distinct possibility,” Rizzo said. “I’m a scout and player development guy at heart and I believe you have to take certain steps to achieve long-term success in the big leagues. He obviously could make me abandon it, and I hope he does. I’m also reserved to the possibility that this might not be his breakout moment. This could be a step sideways to take a leap forward.”
A traditionally slow starter at each level of the minors, Harper began the Triple-A season much the same way. However, in his last 10 games, Harper hit .290 with a .421 on-base percentage and struck his first home run in his 16th game.