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Bryce Harper is the Next Big Thing

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Logic, and 100-plus years of baseball history, would suggest that there must be a level of professional baseball at which Bryce Harper meets failure, where he finally encounters pitching he cannot simply overpower, where the 18-year-old prodigy is made to look his age.

But whatever that level is, he has yet to find it. And as Harper, the Washington Nationals’ top prospect and a player some scouts have called the best amateur hitting prospect in history, prepares for his first full professional season, it is impossible to know where that equalizing level is — if it exists at all.

Harper, whom the Nationals selected with the first overall pick of the 2010 draft, is expected to begin the 2011 season with the low Class A Hagerstown Suns of the South Atlantic League. For the Nationals, who are saying little publicly about their plan for Harper’s progression, it would be the safe, conservative route for Harper — who nonetheless will almost certainly be the youngest player on the team, if not the entire league — allowing him the chance for early success and a swift midseason move to high Class A Potomac.

However, there is also the sense around the Nationals’ organization that Harper’s showing in the elite Arizona Fall League last October and November was a game-changer of sorts, altering the trajectory to the big leagues that the team envisioned for the Las Vegas native.
Facing some of the top pitching prospects in baseball — many of whom were three to five years older and some of whom undoubtedly will be pitching in the majors this season — Harper, a 6'3", 225-pound catcher-turned-outfielder, hit .343 with a 1.039 OPS. Although he put up those numbers in only nine games, by virtue of being a late roster addition and playing just twice a week as a member of the Scottsdale Scorpions’ “taxi squad,” Harper’s success only served to heighten expectations for him in 2011 — if that was possible.

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“I’ve set high standards for myself,” said Harper, in his typically brash fashion, “and I think I should be perfect in every aspect of the game.”

What is a reasonable prediction for Harper’s trajectory to the majors now? Whereas the Nationals might have once circled 2013 for his arrival, now the second half of 2012 — when Harper would still be only 19 years old — seems within reach. It even seems possible, with a stellar 2011 season, that he could force himself onto the Nationals’ Opening Day roster in 2012. If so, he would be the youngest big league debutant since Adrian Beltre at 19 years, 78 days in 1998.

“Playing up” has never been an issue for Harper; in fact, it has been the norm. At age 3, he began playing on his older brother’s 5-6 year old team, a pattern that continued through his childhood.

After his sophomore year of high school, Harper and his family hit upon the idea of skipping his last two years of high school, taking the GED tests (which he passed) and enrolling at the College of Southern Nevada, a junior college that plays in a wood-bat league. That not only put him in the company of some better talent (although you wouldn’t know it from the .443 batting average and team-record 31 homers he hit), but it also made him eligible for the 2010 draft.

The Nationals drafted him first overall, signed him for $9.9 million just before the Aug. 17 deadline and shipped him out to the Florida instructional league, then the AFL. The process of finding Bryce Harper’s proper competitive level was underway, but as 2011 dawns it still ­hasn’t been found.