Restless Harper impressing in Fall League

Restless Harper impressing in Fall League

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Bryce Harper does not like to be a spectator.

A year ago, after he had finished up a stretch playing internationally for USA Baseball, he came to the College of Southern Nevada at age 17 having lost a good amount of weight and strength. So he was forced to sit and watch his new team's fall season. He may have been fatigued, but he was less than thrilled with the forced exile from the field.

After being drafted No. 1 overall by the Washington Nationals in June, Harper had to endure another long stretch away from the field, as he didn't sign until two months later, right at the signing deadline.

Then, finally, the teenage wunderkind got to play, albeit in the instructional league. When he found out he was heading to the Arizona Fall League, there was no doubt a celebration. Harper, after all, wants nothing more than to show what he can do on the field against strong competition.

But there was a condition to this exciting development. Harper would be on the taxi squad, meaning he was only eligible to play on Wednesdays and Saturdays. More idle time, but in this instance, Harper at least showed some understanding of the value in it.

"Sitting back and watching the game a little bit, seeing what guys are doing, this is a great group of guys out here playing," Harper said. "To be around the guys I'm around right now, 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. To get the opportunity to come out here and play is just incredible."

That's not to say Harper is placid on his days off. A constant bundle of energy, Harper takes batting practice all-out, he works on his defense in the outfield all-out, he even gives 100 percent to the stretching routine before batting practice.

When game time comes around, he's always on the top step of the dugout, soaking up every minute of the game. He can be seen pounding a ball into his glove, looking for some way to channel his strong desire to be in the middle of the action.

"He's definitely biting at the bit every day, and when Wednesday and Saturday comes around, he's pretty excited about playing," said his Scottsdale Scorpions teammate, Charlie Culberson, a Giants prospect. "You can tell his demeanor on the days he's not playing, he's a little on edge because he knows he can't go out there and perform. It's a good thing."

Harper singled out Culberson as one of his most helpful teammates on the Scorpions, who will play for the AFL championship on Saturday at Scottsdale Stadium (3 p.m. ET on MLB.com and MLB Network). When Culberson isn't playing, he can be seen next to Harper, hanging over the railing of the dugout. Their lockers are next to each other in the clubhouse.

Harper said Culberson's advice has been invaluable. Culberson, for his part, admits to being curious about the much-hyped prospect and what he would bring to the table.

"I wanted to meet him and see what kind of guy he was," Culberson said. "But he's definitely a great guy and a great baseball player. One of the things that's impressed me the most is how he hustles everywhere. You'd think a guy like him would dog some stuff. He's definitely opened up some eyes out here, especially on this team. Guys respect him because he hustles everything out."


"I always want to play my game like Pete Rose and George Brett and all the great guys who went hard every day."
-- Bryce Harper

Harper only knows one speed so far in his young career, legging out infield hits, taking out middle infielders on double-play balls and, yes, even colliding with a catcher on a play at the plate, something Harper was thrilled he was allowed to do following an amateur career full of "must slide" rules at home.

"Since I was 7 years old, I'd try and take out the second baseman," Harper laughed. "Parents would get mad, but it's baseball. I always want to play my game like Pete Rose and George Brett and all the great guys who went hard every day. I think I have the old-school mentality when I play. I try to hustle every time.

"I can finally take out the catcher. I can finally run somebody over and not get in trouble for it. I won't get tossed."

Some of that is youthful exuberance combined with the fresh legs of having taken most of the summer off. He will learn soon enough that some pacing will be needed to survive the rigors of a full season. That lesson began in Arizona. In one instance, Harper hit a bullet right at the third baseman, who caught it before Harper was barely out of the batter's box. Harper still ran it all the way out, and he was told later by manager Randy Knorr that he really didn't need to expend that kind of energy on such a play.

Other than that, though, Harper doesn't look or play like the teenager he is. At 6-foot-3, 225 pounds, the right fielder fits right in with his AFL colleagues, who are several years his elder. Skills-wise, it's the same deal. Even in his brief time on the field, he's been able to live up to some of the hype, showing off his plus-plus raw power and plus throwing arm along with that old-school attitude.

He's played in just nine games, but has hit .343/.410/.629 with six extra-base hits in 35 at-bats following a 2-for-4 game on Wednesday night, his regular-season finale. One scout said that if Harper were playing every day, he'd likely be the MVP of the league. He's struck out 11 times, but some of that has to do with a desire to get the most bang for his buck in his limited playing time.

"When I'm only playing twice a week, I'm going to go up there and swing as much as I can," Harper said with a smile. "Sometimes I look stupid and sometimes I look good. Hopefully I look good more than I look stupid.

"If I was playing every day, I think my numbers would be a little bit better. I think I'd be a little bit better in the outfield with the reads."

More than his explosive bat, more than his smooth transition to playing the outfield exclusively, more than his all-out style, Harper may have impressed the most with his ability to handle everything, from the attention to the autographs, from the sporadic playing time to making the most of having to sit and watch.

"He's definitely not a kid," Culberson said. "He should be a senior in high school, but he's definitely mature for his age. He knows how to handle himself. He's definitely a professional baseball player now.

"Being the age he's at, being able to be in the Fall League right now, the first year, it's something special for him. Having him out here on my team has been neat. It's a compliment that he mentioned me as someone who's helped him out, and he's definitely helped me out."

Harper would like to help out just one more time. The championship game is on Saturday, and he knows full well that's a day that a taxi-squad player is allowed to play. His parents are coming in from Nevada for the game, and he would love nothing more than to get a few more times at the plate and in the field to show what he can do, this time to a larger audience.

"I hope I'm going to play Saturday," Harper said. "It'd be great to play on Saturday and win that championship and get that ring. But I have no idea. Hopefully, I'll get in there. If I don't, I don't. I'd like to play on national television again, redeem myself from AFLAC [he went 0-for-5 in the high school All-American Game]. Just to be able to get out there and play another game would be great."

Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com and writes a blog, B3. Follow @JonathanMayoB3 on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.