With his first professional season in the books and MLB.com's No. 2 prospect putting the finishing touches on his Arizona Fall League campaign, it's safe to say those concerns have been allayed. Harper, who just turned 19 in October, has clearly made adjustments with every challenge he's faced to date.
His stint in the AFL has been a microcosm of his season. The player fans will see in the Rising Stars Game on Saturday (Surprise Stadium, 5 p.m. MT, MLB Network and MLB.com) is not the same one who began the fall season 1-for-16. Since that rough start, the Nationals outfield prospect carried a 12-game hitting streak into Friday night's game, going 20-for-49 (.408) in that span.
He also homered five times in a six-game stretch through Thursday and had six homers and 23 RBIs in 65 total at-bats. He was fifth in slugging (.677) and seventh in OPS (1.077). Fans attending or tuning in to the Rising Stars Game will see a red-hot Harper in what many think of as the AFL's version of the Futures Game.
"I'm pretty excited," Harper said. "It's going to be fun, entertaining for the fans, to be around the top guys from around the world. It'll be an exciting day."
That Harper has figured out the Fall League shouldn't really surprise anyone. He started out his first full season at Class A Hagerstown and was hitting a very pedestrian .231/.333/.333 through his first 14 South Atlantic League games. A three-game stretch of 6-for-10 with a pair of homers got him going, and when he got his average up to .305 on April 27, he stayed well above .300 for the rest of his time in the league.
Even with a slide toward the end of his SAL tenure, Harper was hitting .318/.423/.554 when the Nationals challenged him with a double-jump up to Double-A. As if following the same script, Harper took some time to get used to the much higher level, hitting just .238 in 80 July at-bats. In August, however, he batted .286 with a .510 slugging percentage over 14 games and looked poised to go on a tear when a hamstring injury shut him down for the remainder of the season on Aug. 18.
"I was bummed I couldn't play in the playoff games," Harper said. "I was upset we didn't get that ring like we should've."
"He had a really good year," Nationals farm director Doug Harris said. "Just at the time he tweaked his hammy, he was putting together quality at-bats every night, he was just starting to get locked in. Even the numbers don't necessarily say it, the last week or so, he strung together some really good at-bats and he improved a great deal.
"A player's first full season is arguably his hardest. When he's done with the Fall League, he's going to feel really good about what he's accomplished and what he's learned."
Harper's not done learning yet. After a long season, a promotion, a trip to the Futures Game and more attention than most Minor Leaguers get, he still has enough in the tank to get it going like he has in the AFL. He was also in Arizona last fall, making his unofficial pro debut. But he was only playing twice a week on the taxi squad, and it was after a long layoff. But he sounded just as happy to be part of the AFL as he did a year ago.
"I'm still excited to be out there," Harper said. "I get to play with Mike Trout, Brandon Crawford, some big league guys like that. We've got a good club, a good clubhouse. It's a lot of fun to be out there with guys who want to be out here and play. I don't like taking time off; I like playing ball."
Saturday's exhibition will be a new experience for Harper. Because he was on the taxi squad in 2010, he wasn't eligible to participate in the Rising Stars Game. He should get a pretty good challenge right off the bat. His East Division squad will face Danny Hultzen, the lefty taken No. 2 overall in the 2011 Draft by the Seattle Mariners. The East has its own 2011 Draft ace starting in No. 1 overall pick Gerrit Cole (Pirates).
Harper is joined on the East squad by the No. 1 prospect in baseball in Trout, as well as the guy tied for the league lead in RBIs in the Rockies' Nolan Arenado. The Pirates' Robbie Grossman joins them as a trio of East Division hitters in the AFL's top 10 for OPS.
The West is not without firepower in this offensive-leaning league. Rangers third base prospect Mike Olt leads the league with eight homers, while he, the Royals' Wil Myers (the league leader with a 1.190 OPS), Michael Choice of the A's and the Braves' Joey Terdoslavich are all among the OPS leaders.
Jedd Gyorko, the Padres' third base prospect who was leading the league with his .426 average to go with a .500 OBP and .689 SLG, originally was not named to the West Division roster but was added Friday to take the place of injured Cardinals first base prospect Matt Adams. In another late change to the West roster, Marlins outfielder Kevin Mattison took the spot of Rays 2011 first-round pick Mikie Mahtook, who is injured.
Marlins third base prospect Matt Dominguez also was injured Friday, bruising his thumb during infield drills, but he remained on the West roster.
"There's a lot of guys who were in the Futures Game, or will be next year, that will be in this game," Harper said. "There's a lot of top talent in the league. It'll be fun that it's on MLB Network. We're excited about that, too.
"I get to come out here, to face these guys, it's a huge opportunity. I love big competition, I'm going to take advantage of my opportunity."
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.