The Nationals recalled Bryce Harper from Class AAA Syracuse today after placing third baseman Ryan Zimmerman on the 15-day disabled list with right shoulder inflammation. The 19-year-old will make his major league debut Saturday at Dodger Stadium, a call-up necessitated by injuries that came faster than Harper or the Nationals anticipated
General Manager Mike Rizzo made his bones in player development, and he had a careful scheme for Harper’s ascension, which included 250 to 300 at-bats at Class AAA Syracuse. But with left fielder Michael Morse out until midseason, Zimmerman also sidelined and punchless bats currently occupying left field, Rizzo traveled to Rochester, N.Y., this week to personally scout Harper. After watching him play left field for three days, Rizzo decided Harper – 72 at-bats into his Class AAA career – would come to the majors, ready or not.
“The decision is really a team decision,” Rizzo said. “It’s to support the major league club when we need an offensive player to play corner outfield. … This wasn’t the coming out party for Bryce that we had in mind. This wasn’t the development plan we had in mind.”
The Nationals made the final decision this afternoon, after Zimmerman visited a doctor in Los Angeles, who confirmed that the third baseman needed to rest his inflamed AC joint in his left shoulder. The Nationals expect Zimmerman to return May 6, the first day he is eligible to come off the disabled list.
Rizzo followed the usual protocol for informing a first-time big leaguer he had made it. He told Director of Player Development Doug Harris, who relayed the news to Syracuse Manager Tony Beasley. Today, Beasley called Harper into his office and told him he was a big leaguer.
“He didn’t say a lot,” Beasley said in a telephone conversation. “I think he was kind of speechless. We just talked a little bit. Gave him some advice. He was just kind of taking it all in. He was very grateful and humble at the same time. It’s a big day for whole organization.”
Rizzo left the decision of how much Harper will play to Manager Davey Johnson, who advocated for Harper to make the major league roster out of spring training. But “we didn’t bring Bryce up there to sit on the bench,” Rizzo said. Harper will start in left field tomorrow; Nationals left fielders have hit .097 this season.
The Nationals will monitor Harper’s progress in the major leagues before deciding if he will stay for good or potentially return to Class AAA Syracuse. Rizzo mentioned Angels prospect Mike Trout as a possible template — the Angels promoted him last year out of need, but after Trout struggled they sent him back to Class AAA. This year, Trout has become one of the most talented minor leaguers in the sport, matched in industry rankings only by Harper.
“With Bryce’s makeup and his attitude and his confidence level, I don’t have many reservations, “Rizzo said. “I expect him to play well. I know this guy is a very confident person. If it doesn’t, he’s not the type of guy it’s going to derail his development plan whatsoever.
“I’m also reserved to the possibility that this may not be his breakout moment. Like Trout with the Angels, there could be a step sideways to take a leap forward.”
At Syracuse, Harper has hit .250 with a .333 on-base percentage and a .375 slugging percentage. He heated up lately, going 5 for 13 with his lone home run during his past five games.
“We had a development plan in mind,” Rizzo said. “We still have a plan. If we didn’t think he could perform in the major leagues and not hurt his developmental plan, we wouldn’t make the move.”
The biggest challenge for Harper may be hitting left-handed pitching. At Syracuse, Harper hit 4 for 21 with six strikeouts against lefties. But both Rizzo and Beasley said Harper has made strides against southpaws, Rizzo calling his approach “fearless.”
“His numbers against lefties are probably not as good as the at-bats that he’s had,” Beasley said. “He competed well.”
The Nationals waited long enough before promoting Harper to ensure they will maintain his rights for six full seasons beginning in 2013 before he becomes eligible for free agency.
When Beasley called Harper into his office today, with the rest of Syracuse’s staff standing by, Harper was calmer than Beasley expected. Harper has been playing with older competition his whole life, and, as one Nationals coach said, “he always found a way to be the best player on the field.”
Now, he will try to be the best player on the biggest of fields.
“He was obviously excited about it,” Beasley said. “Probably a little nervous at the same time.”
“I don’t think he anticipated it,” Beasley added. “None of us did at this point. This is something he’s wanted to achieve for basically his whole life.”