The Washington Nationals, your 2012 National League Wild Card. You read that right; Washington will make the playoffs in 2012. Even with Prince Fielder rumored to be heading to Texas the Nationals have improved to the point where they have put themselves in serious contention to fight for a playoff spot this season. Of course it all starts with pitching, Washington already had a solid duo in future ace Stephen Strasburg (a career .978 whip along with a 2.54 era and 116 strikeouts to just 19 walks in 92 career innings) who bounced back nicely from Tommy John surgery and Jordan Zimmerman, who had a breakout 2011 positing a 3.18 era and walked just 31 batters in 161 innings. To improve the staff they went out and traded for Oakland Athletics All-Star, Gio Gonzalez, a potential number two behind Strasburg who can give the Nationals 200 innings every year. Add to that the breakout of slugger Michael Morse, who just signed a two year deal to stay in Washington, main stay third basemen Ryan Zimmerman and a star catcher in the making in Wilson Ramos and the former cellar dwellers of the National League East are looking pretty good heading into 2012. But what is really going to send the Nationals in contention will be the emergence of uber-prospect, Bryce Harper.
If you are a baseball fan you know Harper’s story, he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated at 16 after hitting a reported 570 foot home run, walked away from the last two years of high school, and got his GED to enroll at Nevada Southern Junior College. While there he only hit 31 home runs, drove in 98 runs, lead his team to the Junior College World Series all with a wood bat, and became the first JC player to ever win baseball’s version of the Heisman, the Golden Spikes award all at only 17 years old. The Nationals then took him number one overall in the draft as an outfielder after having played catcher in high school and college in order to improve his chances at reaching the Major Leagues quicker.
Heading into his first professional season Baseball America ranked him the number one prospect in baseball and he has done nothing to prove he is not worthy of that title. The Nationals showed they had the up most faith in him by sending him immediately to low – A Hagerstown completely skipping any short-season league, a rarity for an 18 year old. While there he blew through the league hitting .318/.423/.554 with 14 home runs and 19 steals to show off some of his amazing athleticism, his performance matched or put to shame all those top prospect that came before him like Alex Rodriguez, Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones, Adrian Beltre, and perhaps even Ken Griffey Jr. In 1988, Griffey was also a super prospect at 18 in San Bernardino and in 58 games at the level; he hit .338/.431/.575 when the league average hitter was putting up a .256/.354/.351 line. 1988 was also the only season Griffey would spend in the minor leagues, a path many believe Harper is on as well. By mid-season 2011 Harper was promoted to Double A Harrisburg. However, this stop would be where Harper struggled for the first time in his professional career, starting out in a slump and struggling for most of his time there before a season ending injury on August 7th. But many believe Harper was just bored or perhaps finally hit that rookie wall after playing for more than a 100 games in a season. His performance in the Arizona Fall League suggests it was the former. In a league filled with the top prospects from across the game he dominated, finishing with a line of .333/.400/.634 and six home runs in 93 at bats. None of this even takes into account his defense at a different position, he switched from catcher to right field and has had seemingly little trouble, the number one problem scouts point out is he needs to work on his routes in the outfield but all also think he has the chance to be a potential gold glove winner.
Washington Nationals General Manager, Mike Rizzo, usually wants his prospects to play at every level of the minor leagues and for most players that is ideally what you want to do. However, Harper is not most players; he is a kid who has had more hype and pressure than any player that has come before him. He is a true five-tool talent, he has had a target on his back from day one, with many assuming he was overrated and hoping he would fail and he has proved them all wrong – he is the natural. In all likelihood the Nationals will handle Harper like they did Stephen Strasburg, start him off at Triple A to begin the season to delay his free agency clock and call him up around May when there is nothing else they can do to keep him down. Those Nat’s fans hoping they sign him to an early extension ala Evan Longoria are most likely out of luck because his agent his Scott Boras, who loves to drive his clients toward free agency. But make no mistake about it; Bryce Harper will be the difference for Washington in 2012.