I have never been a big fan of prospects jumping over leagues as they work their way up an organizational ladder on the way to the major leagues. I said as much back in 2007 when the Royals called up Alex Gordon and allowed him to skip completely over Triple-A. In hindsight, it was not a good move by the Royals as it has taken until 2011 for Gordon to show the type of performance fantasy owners thought they would get when there were scrambling to acquire him in 2005 and 2006. In that same piece, I showed how other bats such as Jeremy Hermida, Mark Teixeira, Miguel Cabrera, and Albert Pujols did while skipping levels in terms of contact rates.
As awesome as those guys were in the lower levels, each saw their walk to strikeout rate dive after promotion rather dramatically especially in Hermida's case. Hermida's batting eye was a huge part of his game in the minors and one of the reasons why he was near the top of most prospect lists but it fell off after the Marlins rushed him up and after that magical second full year of his, he never did much else for fantasy owners.
It was reported over the weekend that the Nationals have promoted Bryce Harper from Low-A up to the Double-A Eastern League and thus bypassing the Carolina League much to dismay of the fans of the Potomac Nationals who have patiently been waiting to catch a glimpse of Harper. After all, Harper was hitting .318/.423/.554 through 72 games with 44 walks and 61 strikeouts. The 23 percent strikeout rate was forgiven with Harper's youth as he was just 18 years old and already being the youngest player in his league. Now, he goes up two levels where most players are 22-23 years old and now he is easily the youngest player in the league.
The promotion harkens back to the last player that was hyped as much as Harper has been hyped - Alex Rodriguez. From the moment Rodriguez was drafted with the first overall pick in the 1993 draft by the Mariners, the spotlight shined as brightly on him as it has on Harper. In Rodriguez's first season, he hit .312/.376/.577 as he spent 65 games in the Midwest League, 17 in the Southern League, and 32 more in the Pacific Coast League before the Mariners brought him up for 17 games in September of 1994. In 1995, the Mariners started him off back in the Pacific Coast League and after watching him hit .360/.411/.654 in 54 games as a 19-year-old in Triple-A (or waiting for his Super 2 deadline to pass) before calling him up for good and he hit just .232/.264/.408 in 142 at-bats for the team.
Since then, Rodriguez has been a fantasy machine that hopefully many of you have enjoyed but we have no idea if Harper can duplicate that kind of impossible career script. Miguel Cabrera found the same type of success as he jumped to the majors at age 20 and helped the Marlins to a World Series title and Albert Pujols bested all of them by jumping from Low-A to the majors and immediately becoming a fantasy stud but we are talking about three of the most elite players in baseball. Ken Griffey Jr. also comes to mind here as the Mariners gave him exposure in the Northwest League, the California League, and the Eastern League before deciding 552 plate appearances was enough and handed him a major league roster spot at the age of 19 which could very well be in Harper's future.
These guys are the exception to the rule, and while Harper has the skills and pedigree, I am still not excited about him skipping levels. The maturity issue has reared its head a few times in his prep and professional career and this kind of aggressive jump can make the spotlight on him even stronger. Given the fact he is on a major league deal, it is not impossible to imagine the Nationals calling him up to get some help at the gate in September as the team has him signed through 2015 before he would become arbitration eligible. Rodriguez and Griffey enjoyed the luxury of playing on the west coast before the baseball world was flattened by the advent of the Extra Innings package, mlb.tv, and ESPN channels in west coast markets that give west coast teams somewhat equal footing to their east coast counterparts. Harper will enjoy no such anonymity as he would be playing in the megalopolis for a team that will have Stephen Strasburg back in full health and the non-related Zimmerman(n) brothers.
A lot of people are going to be gung-ho about getting Harper to the majors and chasing after him for fantasy leagues, but I am going to be that pessimist in the corner who will still be skeptical until his success proves me foolish for not being aggressive in the first place. Maybe watching sure things like Alex Gordon and Matt Wieters fail out of the gate has jaded me, but I would rather invest my fantasy dollars on proven assets and it will be interesting to see how Harper adjusts to pitchers in the Eastern League after striking out 23 percent of the time against unrefined pitchers in Low-A with his incredible swing.
Harper was not the only prospect to skip a league as the Mariners took highly-touted prospect James Paxton from the Midwest League in Clinton and plunked him in Jacksonville, which is part of the Southern League. This promotion is a little more understandable given the fact that the Mariners' High-A team plays in High Desert in the California League where pitching psyches go to die. Paxton was a fourth-round pick in the 2010 draft that pitched Independent League ball while his contract was worked out.
The collegian was assigned to Low-A to start the season to make up for the time off as much as it was to avoid a baptism by fire in the California League and he was simply too talented for the Midwest League. He struck out 80 in 56 innings while allowing just 45 hits and one home run and not only made the Midwest All-Star team, but will also be in the Futures Game in Arizona this coming Sunday. Paxton's push to Double-A will be much more of a challenge and in fact, his first outing was not very smooth as he permitted nine baserunners in less than five innings of work while striking out just one batter. In 78 innings of professional work, he has 99 strikeouts, but also has 40 walks and that will have to improve now that he is in the upper levels of the minor leagues.
Pitching prospects that have Safeco Field in their future are enticing, especially when they are left-handed since the park is a graveyard to right-handed power hitters. The aggressive promotion of Paxton has more to do with avoiding a situation as much as it does challenging him with stiffer competition. Meanwhile, Harper's promotion is not trying to avoid anything and the Nationals want to see what he can do against more advanced pitching and he did not waste any time going 2-for-3 Monday night with two singles, a walk, and a run scored for the Harrisburg Senators. For both players, pay attention to the walks and strikeouts for the rest of the season. In particular, how well Paxton's strikeout rate holds up with the jump and how much he can reduce his walk rate. For Harper, if he can maintain the 23 percent strikeout rate while also retaining the double-digit walk rate, then it would increase his chances of debuting for the Nationals on Opening Day next season just as Griffey did before him.