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Bryce Harper: Top 40 Outfielder in 2012?

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Yes. I said 2012. Many are of the belief that Nationals outfield prospect Bryce Harper will start the 2012 season at AA Harrisburg, and selfishly, I hope he does. The reason is that I would like to see Harper play in person, when the Harrisburg Senators travel south to play the Trenton Thunder. The company I work for has 4 season tickets behind the first base dugout and a suite for all Trenton Thunder games, and I would like to attend at least one of the games when they play the Thunder.

But, if you listen to Nationals manager Davey Johnson, you might want to give a second thought to Harper starting the 2012 season with the big club. I didn't include Harper in my Top 50 Outfielder rankings for 2012 earlier this week, but will include him if the Nationals don't go out and sign/trade for a center fielder this offseason. And maybe Johnson will get his way.

Let's take a look at some of his comments to Washington Post beat writer Thomas Boswell in Thursday's edition after the jump. But, if you aren't reading SB Nation's Washington Nationals site, Federal Baseball, you should, because Patrick Reddington does an excellent job staying up on the Nationals news for their fans.

Here are Johnson's comments in yesterdays Washington Post:

If the Nats can add Buehrle or Oswalt and fortify the bench, then one final huge decision may arrive in Viera: Harper, the teen who tore up the Arizona Fall League. Johnson loves big young talents and big personalities.

“Bryce has the same kind of makeup as Gooden,” Johnson said. “Dwight probably thought he was ready for the majors at 18. And Bryce probably thought he should have made the team last year at 18.

“Harper is going to be competing in the spring. That will speak volumes,” Johnson said. Shouldn’t Harper be brought up in midseason, like Stephen Strasburg, so he will become a free agent a full season later in his career?

“I never get involved with contracts. That’s their decision. I make my recommendation on what makes the best ball club,” Johnson said. “But you can shoot yourself in the foot making decisions just for contract reasons”

This has a chance to be a lot of fun. Rizzo is out hunting for heaven knows what player in who knows which country. The winter meeting fireworks start Monday. Johnson is speculating about a possible outfield combination with Harper, Werth in center field (“that’s one reason we looked at him out there in September”) and Morse.

Checking Jayson Werth's page on Baseball-Reference shows that he played 19 games in center field last year for the Nationals, and 21 games the year before, and 12 games the year before that, so Werth has played some center field over the last three seasons. Maybe Johnson saw enough of him to know that he can play there everyday.

If the Nationals sit tight this offseason and do not bring in another center fielder, this could speak volumes as to their plans for Harper. And Federal Baseball's Reddington makes a valid point in his Thursday afternoon article discussing whether Harper should start the season in the minors (AA or AAA) or the big leagues:

If the Nationals believe they can contend, would they be better off having Harper there from the start, allowing him to get the slow start he's had at each level out of the way early in the season rather than bringing him up to a competitive team and hoping he fits in and produces right away? Would you rather have a hot-hitting Harper join the team after a few months at Double or Triple-A?

So let's assume Harper does go north with the team at the end of March, where would he rank in your outfielder rankings?

I would rank him in my Top 40 for sure. When I say top 40, I would say the back end, as he could outperform guys like Ichiro Suzuki, Coco Crisp and Howie Kendrick, as they are either one category fantasy assets, or on the downside of the age curve. And, as I said in my profiles article for the top 26 - 50 outfielders, many of these outfielders could be moved up or down in the rankings, and I wouldn't argue.

Assuming Harper does start the 2012 season in the big leagues, and manager Davey Johnson seems to have his mind made up on this, I could see him putting up a 15 HR - 15 stolen base season, with some upside to those projections.

So, where would you rank Harper in your outfielder rankings?

One more thing, off topic, SB Nation has a new fantasy soccer blog called Never Manage Alone. So, all you fantasy soccer fans out there, make sure you head on over and check out what they have to offer.