Nostalgia Prospect: Brian Harper
Brian Harper was drafted in the fourth round of the 1977 draft, by the California Angels, out of high school in San Pedro, California. Assigned to Idaho Falls in the Pioneer League as a 17-year-old rookie, he hit .323 with a .370 OBP and .419 SLG, showing impressive contact hitting skills. His catching reputation behind the plate was mixed; he was fairly athletic, but had problems with his throwing mechanics. Not everyone was convinced he could remain behind the plate, but his bat was interesting. Grade B or B-.
Promoted to Quad Cities in the Midwest League in 1978, Harper hit .293 with 24 homers, 101 RBI, 37 walks, and 66 strikeouts in 508 at-bats. His walk rate was less than ideal, but his low strikeout rate was a very positive sign. Harper was impatient, but was a hitter with a knack for "hard contact" even when he swung at pitches outside the strike zone. His defense was still doubtful but there was no question that he had a premium bat. Grade B+.
Promoted to Double-A in 1979, Harper hit .315 with 14 homers, 37 doubles, 50 walks, and 47 strikeouts in 531 at-bats. Yes, this was El Paso, but he was just 19 years old. The Angels gave him two at-bats in the majors in September. Note his outstanding BB/K/AB ratio. Given his age and the BB/K/AB, he'd be a minimum Grade B+ prospect. . .but his defense was still in doubt.
Harper returned to El Paso in 1980 and was less effective, hitting .285 with 12 homers. He still showed excellent contact hitting skills. But he was now an outfielder/first baseman, which made it harder to get a job. I'd still give him a Grade B+ despite the drop off in his hitting and the defensive switch, but due to his age. He moved up to Triple-A in 1981 and had a tremendous year for Salt Lake, hitting .350 with 45 doubles, 28 homers, 122 RBI, 39 walks, and only 33 strikeouts in 549 at-bats. He went 3-for-11 in another brief trial with the Angels, but they didn't have room for him in the outfield, shipping him to Pittsburgh for Tim Foli that winter. Yes, you have to adjust for the thin air in Salt Lake, but just 33 strikeouts with strong offensive production really stands out. B+ or A- still.
Harper had a solid year in Triple-A in 1982 for Portland, hitting .284 with 17 homers, not as gaudy as the Salt Lake numbers but Portland is a much tougher place to hit. He then spent 1983 and 1984 on the Pirates bench, being used mostly as a pinch-hitter and not doing very well. He wandered around Triple-A and major league benches for the next few seasons, seeing action for the Cardinals, Tigers, and Athletics and not hitting well at any one spot, though he never received much playing time.
By 1988, he was 28 years old and had the label of "failed prospect," which was unfair and more a matter of circumstance: he'd never received a real shot. The Twins picked him up that year and sent him to Triple-A, where he hit .353 in 46 games. Promoted to the majors, he hit .295 in 60 games for the Twins.
Manager Tom Kelly showed faith in Harper's defensive skills, which he felt were underrated, and the Twins became the first major league team to give Harper significant playing time behind the plate. He was never great at throwing out runners, but he blocked the plate well. His bat came alive with regular playing time: he hit .325 in 1989, .294 in 1990, and .311 in 1991. He never hit lower than .291 as a regular for the Twins, showing fair power. He never drew many walks, and his combination of a line drive bat with lack of speed resulted in a lot of double plays. But he was unquestionably one of the key components behind the 1991 World Series team and the solid 1992 squad.
Harper's career faded quickly following a 1994 injury. He is a good example of a one-time top prospect who got lost in the shuffle, but who got one last chance and made the most of it. Giving Harper a real shot at a job was one of the smartest things Tom Kelly ever did. He focused on what Harper could do rather than on what he couldn't do.
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