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Bryce Harper: Is GM Mike Rizzo Warming to Idea of Harper Starting 2012 in Big Leagues?

I have written several articles this offseason discussing whether Nationals outfield prospect Bryce Harper will make the team out of spring training which I will provide links to later in the article. In one of those pieces, I suggest Harper could be a Top 40 outfielder this season, and Markus Potter wrote yesterday that Harper was selected in the 14th round in a recent NFBC draft he participated in. That might be a bit early, but Harper has the talent to provide solid production for fantasy owners, even if he hits just .250 or so.

Yesterday, CBS Sports Jon Heyman wrote a piece about Harper possibly making the Nationals roster out of spring training. After the jump, I will provide some quotes from Nationals GM Mike Rizzo that seem to indicate he might be warming up to Harper starting the season in the big leagues.

As an owner of Harper in the UBA NL-Only keeper league, I am torn over whether starting Harper in the big leagues is a good decision or a bad decision. More of my thoughts after the jump:

Here is an excerpt from Heyman's article yesterday:

Nationals manager Davey Johnson has been telling anyone who'll listen he wants slugging teen-aged phenomBryce Harper to start the season with the big-league team. And while most folks around baseball think that's a reach, Johnson may getting through to some people -- in fact, the very people making the call.

"We're take a look at him and see where he's at developmentally. If we feel he's ready to play at the major-league level, we're not going to restrict him,'' Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said by phone. "We'll be cautious yet open-minded. If he gives us the best chance to win, we'll keep an open mind and see where it takes us.''

I have been following the Harper situation closely this offseason, and I have to say that this comment from Rizzo leads me to think that he is warming to the idea of Harper starting the season in the majors. That is, assuming he impresses everyone in spring training. Earlier this offseason, Rizzo was giving more conservative responses when asked what his plans were for Harper in 2012.

This might be the first time Rizzo has said "we're not going to restrict him" when discussing Harper with baseball writers. The pressure is on Harper once spring training begins, but the pressure will shift to Johnson and Rizzo if Harper can shine in the Nationals spring training games. Harper hit .389-.450-.556 in 18 spring training at bats last season, so I imagine he will get another 50 or so at bats this spring training before a decision is made on where he will start the 2012 season.

There are arguments to be made for starting him in AA, as Harper hit just .256-.329-.395 with 3 HRs, 12 RBI, 14 runs and 7 SBs in 129 at bats for AA Harrisburg last season. His performance in Low A was much better as he hit .318-.423-.554 with 14 HRs, 46 RBI 49 runs and 19 stolen bases in 24 attempts, and he did maintain a solid batting eye at AA striking out 26 times and walking 15 times in his 129 at bats.

Harper was shut down in mid-August with a hamstring injury, but he followed up his AA showing with a strong performance in the Arizona Fall League hitting .333-.400-.634 with 6 doubles, 2 triples, 6 HRs, 26 RBI and a 22-11 K/BB rate in 93 at bats. We know that we should take AFL stats with a grain of salt as it is a hitters league, but Harper was still one of the youngest hitters in the league and he dominated.

The Harper decision will be a big story once spring training starts and I for one will be following it closely as it will impact fantasy drafts in 2012 should he make the Nationals 25 man roster.

Here are a few articles I wrote on Harper earlier this offseason:

Bryce Harper: What Can We Expect in 2012

Bryce Harper: Top 40 Outfielder in 2012?