Wednesday, February 23, 2011

History is Against Bryce Harper

Bryce Harper has become the Beatles of baseball. Accounts have been given of the young phenom for the Washington Nationals getting mobbed at the team's Spring Training complex. Along with the intense interest in the Nationals' Number One pick comes the pressure to see what the kid can do. This observer can't recall a single instance where this much attention was shed on an eighteen year old player with just a few professional games to his resume. Granted, he blew away that professional competition and in his own words, he's spent a lifetime overcoming expectations. But the odds and history are against Harper being anything but a minor league player this season.

First, the Nationals are intent on him playing in the minors this year. His invitation to camp is part of his deal signed when he was drafted. There are just as many pressures for the Nationals to start him in the minors as there is from fans who want to see him play at the top level. First and foremost, the Nationals aren't going to rush the clock on Harper's time in team control. We've talked about that here a half a dozen times. Non-contending teams simply don't rush prospects as big as Harper simply to keep the watch from ticking. The Nationals did break precedent with that last year when Strasburg was called up just a year after he was drafted. But that was a little different because Strasburg wasn't as young as Harper and pitched college ball.

And the injury to Strasburg probably gave the team pause to trying that sort of thing again. But again, Strasburg is a pitcher and Harper is not. But there is not just the matter of a team wanting to hold Harper back for financial reasons. There is also history.

Since 1901, only two players in all that time accumulated at least 100 hits at the age of 18. Both of them were from a long, long time ago. One of them just died in Phil Cavaretta of the Cubs, who broke in with that club in 1935 at the age of 18 and compiled 162 hits. The other was Johnny Lush with the Phillies way back in 1904 when Lush had 102 hits. And the odds don't get any better as a 19 year old either. Only 17 of those since 1901 have managed 100 hits. It's at the age of 19 where you start seeing players like Junior Griffey, Edgar Renteria, Robin Yount, Mel Ott, Rusty Staub, Al Kaline, Tony Conigliaro and Ed Kranepool. All of those players were precocious phenoms of their day. All became good players and many of them made the Hall of Fame. But that's still not a large number.

Harper has some things in his favor. For one, the Fans really want to see him. And given the Nationals need to build fan interest as they cope with a higher payroll after the Werth signing, those dollar signs might be too hard to fight. Secondly, Harper has a guy named Scott Boras working for him which exerts a pressure all its own. We don't know what guarantees the Nationals gave Boras and Harper when Harper signed. We do know his Spring Training invitation is one of them. But who knows if any kind of timetable was hammered out.

It would be an intense shock if the Nationals broke camp with Harper on the team. Their general manager is on record as stating Harper will be in the minors in 2010. The manager says, "Never say never." So at least he's open minded. It wouldn't be a surprise if Harper did very well and crushed minor league opponents and got called up later in the year (at least September). But history is against Bryce Harper having any kind of major league impact until 2013 at the earliest. But stranger things have happened and Harper has shown above all else that he's build his entire life for breaking such barriers.

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