Phenom Bryce Harper has struggled mightily in minor league ball since his initial success early in 2011 at the A level.
At A level, he hit 14 home runs in 258 at-bats—one every 18.5 at-bats.
At AA, he hit three home runs in 129 at-bats—one every 43.0 at-bats.
At AAA, now in 2012, he has zero home runs in 56 at-bats.
His OPS ( on-base percentage plus slug percentage) has plummeted from 977 in A ball to 724 in AA and now 634 in AAA .
Clearly, the young man is not ready for major league baseball.
But even if his numbers were better, the Washington executives would be reluctant to buck a player development "rule of thumb" that suggests a position player experience 1,000-2,000 minor league at-bats before getting promoted to the majors.
This threshold seems to hold for both kids drafted and signed out of high school as well as those selected and signed with a college background.
Adrian Gonzalez, selected No. 1 in the 2000 draft, did not debut in majors until April 18, 2004, after 2,480 minor league at-bats. Joe Mauer, the No. 1 pick in 2001, had 1,055 minor league at-bats before his call-up. BJ Upton and Prince Fielder, the second and seventh picks in the 2002 draft, experienced 1,800 and 1,635 minor league at-bats respectively. James Loney and Denard Span, who both went later in the first round of that 2002 draft, had 2,203 and 2,140 minor league at-bats. Delmon Young, the first pick in the 2003 draft, had 1,413 minor league at-bats and Billy Butler, the 14th pick in the 2004 draft, had 1,532. Cameron Maybin and Jay Bruce were both picked in the top dozen of the 2005 draft and seasoned with 1,547 and 1,359 minor league at-bats.
Even college players such as Nick Swisher, Nick Markakis, Carlos Quentin, Kevin Youkilis and Aubrey Huff have exceeded this 1,000 minor league at-bat threshold before being promoted to the majors.
There have been some exceptions, but even those come with "conditions." Mark Teixeira was the fifth selection in the 2001 draft and had only 326 minor league at-bats before making the Texas Rangers roster on April 1, 2003. Matt Wieters was the fifth selection in the 2007 draft and made his debut with the Orioles May 29, 2009 after only 578 minor league at-bats.
In both cases, these guys were joining lousy teams with no prospect of contending. I maintain management figured we might as well let these guys garner their experience and at-bats at the major league level. Interestingly enough, Wieters emerged in 2011 after struggling in 2009 and 2010, while he acquired another 800 at-bats to learn his craft.
Evan Longoria, the third pick in the 2006 draft, only endured 758 minor league at-bats before making the majors April 12, 2008. He too was joining a bad Tampa Bay team that had gone 66-96 in 2007 and was not expected to be the successful contender they turned out to be in 2008. Troy Tulowitzki's story parallels Longoria's; Tulowitzki was the seventh pick in the 2005 draft, who found himself in the majors August 30, 2006 after only 517 minor league at-bats. He too joined a 61-71 losing club that was in last place in its division; its 2007 success was also unexpected.
Perhaps too many clubs are getting carried away with this notion of "apprenticeship at the major league level." The Pirates are thoroughly perplexed as to what to do with 2008 second selection Pedro Alvarez, who was rushed to the majors before the 1,000 minor league at-bats and has struggled severely.
Counter that with their handling of Andrew McCutchen, who, after being drafted 11th in 2005, was allowed to mature in the minors with 1,967 at-bats; he was not called to the majors until June 4th, 2009. McCutchen has blossomed to the point that, on March 9, 2012, the team signed him to a six-year, $51.5 million contract.
Seattle's Dustin Ackley is another one who may have been promoted prematurely.
Washington appears to be a contender in 2012. There is no need to rush Harper to the majors. Hopefully, the young man will relax and his talent will emerge. Look for him to be a starter for the Nationals in the 2014 season after he has built a professional resume of success .