SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - Imagine being chosen No. 1 in Major League Baseball's amateur draft because you are ridiculously talented, yet like all selections, also unproven.
Now imagine being sent by your employer to show your stuff against other studly minor leaguers. It’s your chance to show what you can do, but there’s a major rub: you’ll only play two games a week and sit the rest of the time.
Such was the reality Bryce Harper just experienced in the Arizona Fall League this past month, a league that in 2009 included rising stars Jason Heyward, Mike Stanton, Starlin Castro, Stephen Strasburg, Mike Leake and 2010 NL Rookie-of-Year Buster Posey, plus 60 others who saw time in the majors last season.
And Harper’s results? In just 10 games for the AFL Champion Scottsdale Scorpions, he hit .333 (13-for-39) with a home run, two triples, three doubles and eight RBI, one of which came in the Scorpions' 3-2 championship victory Saturday over the Peoria Javelinas at Scottsdale Stadium (Harper was 1-for-4 in the finale). Yet perhaps more striking than the on-field performance of the 6-foot-3, 225-pound right fielder was what he learned from his AFL experience coupled with the maturity and professionalism he demonstrated.
Following games in which he played, Harper was accessible for interviews and was more than forthcoming and candid. Afterward, he signed autographs for fans, sometimes while his peers were already on the team bus or in the clubhouse.
“It was a great experience,” said Harper who turned 18 years old on Oct. 16. “These are some of the best guys in baseball. I felt pretty good out there and at the plate. I’ve learned a lot.”
Since 1992, the six-team AFL owned by MLB has been the destination for the game’s future crop of All-Stars to showcase their talents. Playing a 32-game schedule beginning in mid-October throughout the Phoenix area, rules allow each MLB team to send a maximum of seven top prospects to the league, with any additional players designated to “the taxi squad,” playing only Wednesdays and Saturdays. Washington had already submitted its list of seven to MLB before debate ensued within the organization over whether it would be beneficial to send Harper to the AFL.
“We weren’t too sure if the time in between (starts) was going to affect him at all. We wouldn’t have sent him here if we didn’t think he could compete,” explained Randy Knorr, the Scorpions Manager who has worked for the Nationals since 2007, including managing at multiple levels in the club’s minor league system. “But he adapted to it and did a super job, especially the way we had to play him.”
Harper was such a late addition that his biography didn’t make the AFL media guide.
Considering he’s yet to experience significant failure or adversity in his young career, the Nationals' decision to send Harper to the AFL wasn’t based on changing the way he plays the game, but rather largely to have him observe and build relationships with other players. The AFL teams are comprised of organizational groupings, meaning the Scorpions featured Nationals prospects together, as well as those from the Diamondbacks, Rockies, Orioles and Giants.
Matt York / AP
Bryce Harper says playing in the Arizona Fall League was a learning experience. “I just started keeping a notebook. ... To be able to watch what guys are doing, what other pitchers are throwing to other guys, to just learn the game, I think it's huge.”
Said Harper: “I just started keeping a notebook. I think that’s huge. To be able to watch what guys are doing, what other pitchers are throwing to other guys, to just learn the game, I think it's huge.”
In speaking to and watching the left-handed hitting, right-handed throwing catcher-turned-outfielder over more than three weeks, I was struck by not only his talent, but his authenticity. And that fact that he’d just turned 18 (and remembering — ultra scary thought now — what I was like at 18).
So his late arrival to the AFL was not without some immediate learning, both on and off the field, typical of your teeny bopper turned industry celebrity. No. 34 was mobbed with autograph requests from fans, and overly obliged early on almost to a fault that it nearly knocked him out cold. In late October, after a game, Harper was struck in the head by a ball he didn’t see coming, tossed in an inadvertent, yet non-malicious manner by an autograph-seeking fan.
Nationals’ brass didn’t witness the moon beam, but it’s just as well as they might have had a collective heart attack. Their top prospect apparently has quite a strong noggin though, in addition to a brisk swing, because he was okay. At one point, AFL media staffers personally recommended Harper set autograph boundaries, which he eventually did.
At times in right field, Harper got late reads, although he made just one error. And there was no disputing his arm strength. On Nov. 3 at Surprise, Harper fired the ball from the right field corner — some 350 from home plate — to just beyond the third base bag on the fly.
Harper also displayed his youth at the plate in the early going.
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