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10 Degrees: Harper is a hitting machine

The world learned officially April 20 that Bryce Harper(notes) was not some baseball cyborg built to take over the game. One would imagine that if a robotic race were intent upon domination, it would at least have given its scion a pair of eyes impervious to astigmatism.

For the last few years, Harper's unparalleled domination of the amateur baseball world came with a pair of peepers far short of 20/20. When he started his first professional season 7-for-31 at Class A Hagerstown after signing for $9.9 million with the Washington Nationals, Harper traveled to Washington to take a vision test.

He couldn't get much past the big letters. The eye doctor fitted him for a pair of contact lenses. Harper said he felt like he was seeing in HD. He's hitting like it, too.

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Bryce Harper is a terror with the bat and he's looking less and less like a converted catcher in the outfield.
(US Presswire)

Since his slow start – and since around the time he started wearing contacts – Harper is 29 of 66 (.439) with six home runs, and his 1.161 OPS ranks second in the South Atlantic League behind Matt Curry, who turns 23 in July. Harper is 18 years old, and it's the beyond-his-years tools that prompted one scout to file what he called "the most glowing report since A-Rod."

Everyone who sees Harper, it seems, falls in love with his game. It's not just the 6-foot-3, 230-pound frame, or the left-handed swing that should be measured in foot-pounds of torque, or the abandon with which he's playing the outfield, where he looks nothing like a converted catcher.

"Just the way he plays," said Gary Robinson, the manager of the West Virginia Power. "He believes in his ability, and he has a lot. Learning to trust yourself and your ability might be the hardest thing there is to do for a young player. I don't see that in this kid. I think he's going to have to change some of the things he does with regards to actually playing the game, but the genuine love for playing the game and playing it hard and being the best player he can be is very evident."

By change, Robinson meant the 100-mph speed at which Harper plays, not the incident between Hagerstown and West Virginia that resulted in emptied benches. West Virginia pitcher Tyler Waldron yakked at Harper after striking him out. Harper didn't take kindly. Nothing came of it, other than knee-jerk concerns about Harper's maturity that cropped up last year.

"I like his makeup," Robinson said. "No concerns there."

"It's phenomenal," said Bill Richardson, manager of the Hickory Crawdads. "I put it almost above a player's skill set. It's what separates 'em. And the way he plays is fun to watch."

Richardson got the first look at the new-and-improved Harper in his initial series with contacts. And the day after he started wearing them …

1. Bryce Harper took an outside pitch and yanked it far over the right-field wall.

"We were trying to pitch in," Richardson said. "We were unable to do that. That has something to do with Bryce Harper. You don't want to be the guy who gives up the 500-foot job. So we ended up giving up a couple 375-foot ones."

Before the first game of the series, Richardson implored his staff to pitch inside to Harper. It was evident what he could do with pitches over the plate. The Power pitchers, Richardson said, looked forward to facing Harper – to being able to say they struck out the most-hyped position player since Alex Rodriguez(notes) nearly 20 years ago.

That's his life now, and it's going to be that way well past this decade. Harper might as well take a red can of spray paint to his jersey and draw concentric circles. He is the pelt for every pitcher in the South Atlantic League now, and the Carolina League next, and then the Eastern League, and, well, there won't be much left to accomplish after that. Gaudy numbers tend to take hitters where …

2. Eric Hosmer(notes) landed this week. Already he's learned about the enormity of hype and expectations that surround baseball's prospects. (The sort that an entire column about kids who have spent at most 10 days in the major leagues tends to perpetuate.)

Hosmer found himself a trending topic on Twitter – twice. He was given the Chuck Norris Facts treatment. He was intentionally walked in his second game – a strategic move, yes, but still.

More than anything, Hosmer served as the guinea pig for what's coming and handled it with aplomb. Left-handed pitchers Mike Montgomery(notes) and Danny Duffy should arrive within a month. Same with third baseman Mike Moustakas(notes). Others aren't far behind. And fanfare will accompany each, because Kansas City is beginning to treat the Royals more like a family than its black-sheep uncle. In their treasure trove of top prospects, each is a new addition worthy of a proper welcome, and while they may not receive the immediate deification of Hosmer – emboldened by the rocket-shot double he hit off the right-field wall Sunday for his first RBI – they'll understand soon that a place starving for good baseball will embrace them. The famished often do …

Anthony Rizzo(notes).
(Getty Images)

3. Which would make the arrival of Anthony Rizzo to San Diego … Manna? Yeah, actually. That's about right.

For a good bit of time, the first baseman was doubling the major league team's batting average at Triple-A Tucson. Rizzo has cooled down to just .397 while the Padres are hitting .216. That's no typo: a major league team at .216.

Presumably, the Padres are waiting for the end of May or early June to summon Rizzo. He is, after all, just 30 games into his first season above Double-A. And in addition to being just 21, Rizzo missed nearly all of the 2008 season after being diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma. Plus there are the service-time considerations: If Rizzo were called up now, the Padres could lose millions in the future because he would receive an extra year of arbitration.

So for now they'll let Rizzo and his 43 RBIs in 118 at-bats marinate in the Pacific Coast League while the major league team and its 96 RBIs in 1,109 at-bats try to figure things out. Rizzo will be up soon enough to replace the man for whom he was traded, Adrian Gonzalez(notes), in a deal that …

4. At one point included the name Jose Iglesias(notes). The Boston Red Sox weren't about to dispatch the 21-year-old shortstop on whom they spent $8.25 million after he defected from Cuba. Iglesias immediately drew Rey Ordonez comps because of his superlative glove and Cuban heritage, though one scout prefers Omar Vizquel(notes), "because Iglesias can at least hit a little."

He won't get too much of a chance over the next two weeks, not with Jed Lowrie(notes) still batting .333. Marco Scutaro's(notes) disabled-list stay, however, gives Iglesias the first taste of a job that could be his if Lowrie stops hitting. So good is Iglesias with his glove, the Red Sox figure his bat is gravy, a throwback notion enabled by his surrounding infield: Gonzalez, Dustin Pedroia(notes) and Kevin Youkilis(notes).

Iglesias made his major league debut Sunday, entering the game for Lowrie in the ninth inning. He made the final play of the game, a 9-5 victory that put Boston within two games of .500 and just four behind the first-place New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays, who are watching …

5. Jesus Montero and Desmond Jennings(notes) act like big, bad men at Triple-A and thump International League pitching.

Montero could hit in the major leagues today. He's at .354 with Triple-A Scranton-Wilkes Barre, though the power he has exhibited at other level has gone AWOL. Jennings once again is exhibiting the tools that so thrilled the Rays: true center field speed, tremendous baserunning instincts (8 for 8 in stolen bases), on-base skills (a .417 OBP) and enough pop to keep from one-dimensionality.

Both could prove integral stretch-run pieces or trade bait – Montero's more likely the latter than Jennings, as he was the centerpiece of the Yankees' offer for Cliff Lee(notes) last year. With no Lee-like pitcher available, the question is just how much GM Brian Cashman is willing to gamble. The expiration date on Freddy Garcia(notes) and Bartolo Colon's(notes) deals with the devil is nigh, which will leave the Yankees needing a starter to stave off Tampa Bay, Boston or both. Still, another huge bat, and one who comes cheap for six years no less, is a phenomenally valuable piece, something …

6. The Philadelphia Phillies should soon learn when Domonic Brown(notes) returns from his broken hamate bone. And quite a return he's had: hitting .390 and slugging .732 in 11 games, with four very surprising home runs at two minor league stops.

The hamate is a hitter's equivalent of Samson's hair. It's one of the tiny bones on the top of a hand, and batters returning from hamate injuries often take a year to regain their power. Brown was never a monster home run hitter anyway – his 22 last year set a career high – as much as a font of potential. And with Raul Ibanez's(notes) misery against everyone but Washington and Ben Francisco's(notes) strong start fading, Brown soon could come up in tandem with Chase Utley(notes) to give the Phillies a jolt.

Like, with the best record in the National League, they need it. Would be similar to giving …

Alex White(notes).
(Getty Images)

7. The American League's best team, the Cleveland Indians, another strong starting pitcher. Which happened when Alex White joined them after 175 minor league innings, outdueled Rick Porcello(notes) in his first start and handed Jered Weaver(notes) his second loss the next time out.

White, the Indians' No. 1 pick in 2009, is the pitcher's equivalent to a metal band: hard, harder and hardest. Hard is his slider, an 85-mph power breaker. Harder is his splitter, an 87-mph beast he has yet to use much in his first two starts. Hardest is a 93-mph fastball he threw three-quarters of the time to solid results.

If White continues to pitch well, the Indians will have more starters than rotation spots. Mitch Talbot(notes) and Carlos Carrasco(notes) both pitched well before hitting the disabled list, and Fausto Carmona(notes), Justin Masterson(notes) and Josh Tomlin(notes) aren't going anywhere for the time being. It's a good problem to have, made all the better by their 2010 No. 1, Drew Pomeranz, sporting a 1.27 ERA with 42 strikeouts in 28 1/3 innings at Class-A Kinston. He'll be at Double-A soon, the level at which …

8. Mike Trout(notes) is doing his best to keep close the race with Harper for the title of No. 1 prospect. Everything scouts say about Harper – the tools, the makeup, the excitement – they echo about Trout. Hitting .304 with a .398 on-base percentage and .565 slugging percentage as a 19-year old in Double-A is somewhere between unfair and unreal.

And if the Angels didn't have $175 million worth of corner outfielders in Torii Hunter(notes) and Vernon Wells(notes) as well as the .300-hitting, plus-plus-defending Peter Bourjos(notes) in center field, the possibility of Trout joining the Angels before his 20th birthday in August would not be farfetched. Just seven months older than Trout …

Julio Teheran(notes).
(US Presswire)

9. Julio Teheran did it Saturday. Granted, it was a spot start. And he got it only because it was his turn in the rotation at Triple-A, and the Atlanta Braves didn't want to throw off anybody's rhythm. Still, Teheran turned 20 in January, and here he was, at Citizens Bank Park, firing 95-mph fastballs over the plate and off-speed pitches he simply couldn't control.

The problem: Major league hitters are happy to sit on that fastball and pummel it over the center field wall, as Ryan Howard(notes) did in parabolic fashion. Teheran allowed three runs in 4 2/3 innings, then shuffled back to Triple-A Gwinnett. He'll return to Atlanta sometime this year. His arm is simply too electric to keep in the minor leagues, even if the Braves' rotation stretches so deep that another prospect with great pedigree, Mike Minor(notes), is stuck at Triple-A, too.

If Brandon Beachy's(notes) performance is legit, the Braves – who already have the NL's best ERA at 2.87 – are set for the next half-decade-plus in their starting staff. Tommy Hanson(notes) is growing into an ace. Jair Jurrjens(notes) looks as confoundingly strong as ever. And with Minor and Beachy and Randall Delgado(notes) and Arodys Vizcaino, Atlanta has more arms than rotation spots.

How quickly they've ascended, too. At this time last year, Teheran was pitching in Rome, in the same league …

10. That this year can't stop Bryce Harper. He's not long for Hagerstown. High-A Potomac is the next stop for Harper, and after that is Double-A Harrisburg, which last year experienced this kind of mania for Stephen Strasburg(notes).

"And when you get over that line," Richardson said, "if he shows the kind of numbers he's doing here, it could be real quick."

To the major leagues, he means. Funny to think. Two years ago, Harper was on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a 16-year-old. Last year, he was skipping his senior year of high school and setting records at a junior college in a wood-bat league. And now he's drawing comparisons to among the best pure hitters in the game.

"Robinson Cano(notes) is one of the best hitters I ever saw in the minor leagues, and this guy has got a chance to be every bit as good a hitter as he is, with maybe a little more jack," Robinson said. "I didn't think he was that big a kid until I got up close to him. He's a big boy.

"I don't see any drawbacks."

Nor does Harper. He's just seeing in HD these days. And the future is as clear as can be.

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