When one takes a look up and down the organizational ladder of the Washington Nationals for the 2012 season, it's hard not to notice the big name at the top and wonder when he'll no longer be a "prospect," but a fixture in the big club's outfield and its cleanup hitter for years to come.
You know whom we're referring to, right?
Here are a few hints: He's got a vicious left-handed swing. He was the No. 1 overall pick in the First-Year Player Draft in 2010. He hit a 500-foot homer when he was 16 years old. He cakes eye black on his face like no other.
Or, if you've been in a cave for the last three years, his name is Bryce Harper.
The questions are mounting. After ascending to Double-A in 2011, when will Harper make it to the Major Leagues? Will it happen in 2012, and if so, in which month? Will it possibly be Opening Day? And after Harper makes it, who will be the next product of this stacked system to ascend the organizational ranks in time for a September-or-even-earlier callup?
When it comes to Harper's immediate future, Nationals farm director Doug Harris chooses to take a very conservative approach dealing with the steady swirl of media and fan interest.
"To answer that question is really putting the cart ahead of the horse a little bit," Harris said. "I think what his focus will be, and he's locked in to that approach, is that he's going to improve in all phases of his game.
"Where or when that opportunity comes, that's up to [manager] Davey [Johnson] and [general manager] Mike [Rizzo]. Basically, it's just continuing to evolve as a hitter, fielder and baserunner. Then he'll be ready to roll."
In the meantime, the Nationals have great expectations for the rest of their impressive list of prospects. Third baseman Anthony Rendon was the sixth overall pick in last year's Draft, and the Nats love his bat. Alex Meyer, a hard-throwing 6-foot-9 right-hander, was picked up later in the first round of the 2011 Draft and has been compared, stuff-wise, to last year's first overall selection, Gerrit Cole.
With the parent club boasting Stephen Strasburg at the head of the rotation, the Nationals appear to be loaded from top to bottom in the organization. The future should be bright in the nation's capital.
"We certainly raised the bar here," Harris said. "We've been able to match the development and the winning at our level. We like the expectations."
Top 20 Prospects
In addition to the big-name players at the top of their list, the Nationals have a full plate of prospects underneath and possibly not far behind, and they have as many hitters as they do pitchers. Left-handers Sammy Solis and Matt Purke are ranked near the top among the organization's up-and-comers, and outfielders Michael Taylor, Brian Goodwin and Destin Hood are highly thought of, too.
Infielder Steve Lombardozzi, the son of a former Major Leaguer, got a brief taste of the big leagues last year after hitting at or near .300 at every level of the Minor Leagues, and he could create more opportunities for himself in 2012. The same can be said for shortstop Rick Hague, whose season ended last June because of a shoulder injury, but whose bat the Nats have always loved.
First baseman Chris Marrero was a September callup last year and was expected to have a chance at cracking the Opening Day roster after putting up a .300/.375/.449 slash line at Triple-A Syracuse in 2011 at the age of 22, but he tore his hamstring in winter ball and might not start the 2012 season on time.
nationals' top prospects
Under the radar
Catcher Sandy Leon is believed to be a near-finished product on the defensive side of things, and his 53 percent caught-stealing rate at Class A Potomac in 2011 can attest to that. His bat is a work in progress, but he did hit six homers last year and is only 22 years old.
For the first time in his professional career, lefty Josh Smoker, a first-round pick by the Nationals in the 2007 Draft, didn't start a game in 2011, which he spent at Potomac. His ERA went down to 2.31 after 50 2/3 innings in 46 games, while his strikeout-per-nine-innings rate stayed high at 9.9. His walk total (37) was still way too high, but he only gave up 32 hits.
Hitter of the Year
Rendon was expected to go second in the Draft behind Cole last year until he slipped to the Nationals at the No. 6 spot because of injury concerns. Those in front offices were especially high on Rendon because of his uncanny plate discipline and the power he displayed at Rice University -- traits that are expected to arrive on the big league scene sooner rather than later, as long as he stays healthy.
Pitcher of the Year
Meyer's imposing height, high-90s fastball and slider are the pluses. Mechanics that need work could be a minus, but he's such an intimidating presence and has such good stuff that he should move quickly through the system, if he can figure out a delivery that's easy to repeat.