CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – A lot can change in two years time, and a lot has changed for Travis Harrison since he last spoke with Perfect Game in late April, 2011. At that time, Harrison was still playing out his senior season of baseball at Tustin (Calif.) High School, holding steady in his college commitment to Southern California while, at the same time, mulling his upcoming draft potential.
“I’ve heard good things about where I might go, but right now I’m really just focused on USC and I’m really excited to go there,” he told PG over the telephone on that spring day in 2011. “If someone took me really high in the draft we (his family) would consider it, and if not I wouldn’t be disappointed at all. I would love to go play at USC and win the national championship.”
The USC-national championship scenario never materialized. The Minnesota Twins made Harrison a first round compensation pick with the No. 50 overall selection in the 2011 MLB First-Year Player Draft. After accepting a $1.05 million signing bonus right on the Aug. 15 deadline, the 2010 Perfect Game All-American played the entire 2012 season at Elizabethton in the Rookie-level Appalachian League.
This spring, Harrison finds himself playing with the Cedar Rapids Kernels, the Twins’ low-Class A affiliate in the Midwest League. A native of Aliso Viejo, Calif., he said he was getting acclimated to his new surroundings just fine when he spoke with Perfect Game on Thursday afternoon.
“It’s been fun; the bus travel isn’t too far in this league,” Harrison said Thursday. “I got to play in the snow for the first time in my life, so that was exciting. Other than that, it’s just baseball and it’s the same game.”
He would be playing in his sophomore season at USC this spring had he decided to go the college route, but the first round money and adventure associated with starting a professional career proved to be too much to turn down.
“It would have been nice to go to USC; it’s a great place, an awesome place and I would have loved it,” Harrison said. “Fortunately, the Twins gave me the opportunity to come do this, and I love baseball – I just love it. I’d much rather being doing this than doing homework right now, that’s for sure.”
In 60 games at Elizabethton last year, he hit .301 with 21 extra-base hits (five home runs), 27 RBI and 39 runs scored. He was the only player on the Kernels roster to play in their first 18 games this season, and hit .266 with eight doubles, two home runs, eight RBI and five runs.
An outfielder in high school, Harrison was moved to third base to start his pro career. He soaked up everything he could during his first season of professional baseball and has continued to learn on a daily basis under Kernels manager Jake Mauer.
“I hit pretty well and I was pretty consistent all year,” Harrison said of his 2012 season. “I got a lot better on defense the second half of that year and I carried that into the offseason, and it’s been showing so far this year. I take ground balls with Jake (Mauer) every single day (and) playing third base everyday (in 2012) helped a lot, knowing what I need to do to make certain plays and not make the errors that I did last year.”
Mauer spent nearly a half-hour hitting ground balls to Harrison on Thursday at Perfect Game Field almost four hours before their MWL game that night against Great Lakes.
“He’s a hard-worker and he’s been working very hard on his defense,” Mauer said of Harrison. “He swings the bat pretty good and he’s always had the ability to hit. I know he was an outfielder in high school so he’s making the transition to third base, and he’s doing a nice job. He’s out there every day getting his stuff done, and I think he’ll be just fine.”
By the time Harrison graduated from high school in 2011, he had spent more time in front of Perfect Game scouts than any other prospect in PG’s history.
He attended 28 PG events between 2005 and 2010, starting out at the 2005 SoCA Pre-High Showcase in Palos Verdes Peninsula, Calif., as a 6-foot, 180-pound 13-year-old and capping it off at the 2010 PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla. He was listed at 6-foot-2, 215-pounds in Jupiter – still his height and weight today – just days after his 18th birthday.
Harrison remembers that first PG SoCA Pre-High Showcase fondly, largely because of the presence of another somewhat precocious 13-year-old. That event also happened to mark the PG debut of Bryce Harper, the current starting right-fielder for the Washington Nationals and the 2012 National League Rookie of the Year.
“That was crazy, just crazy,” Harrison said. “I remember Bryce and I showed up there and had a little (hitting) duel, and that was fun. From there it kind of just went, and I got to do all the Jupiter (Fla.) events and all the East Cobb (Ga.) events and all those kind of things, and it was good.”
The man who most influenced Harrison during his early years was Mike Spiers, the executive director of ABD Academy in southern California who passed away on Jan. 18. Harrison played in more than a dozen PG tournaments with Spiers’ ABD teams, including the powerhouse ABD Bulldogs, at venues stretching from Tucson, Ariz., to Marietta, Ga., to Jupiter, Fla.
“It had a lot to do with Mike Spiers out in California,” he said, recalling his “great” friend. “He did so much for me and he was obviously involved with Perfect Game, so whenever he wanted me to go to a Perfect Game event I was more than happy to go because everyone there treated me so well. I seemed to perform pretty well at Perfect Game events, too, so I liked doing that.”
Harrison spent his entire youth playing “up” in the different age-group events. For example, as a 15-year-old in 2008 he played with the ABD Bulldogs at both the PG WWBA 2009 Grads or 18u National Championship and the PG WWBA 2009 Grads or 17u National Championship in Marietta, Ga. He also participated in the PG 2010 Grads National Showcase in San Bernardino, Calif., that year.
Despite all that playing time with Spiers and ABD over the years, Harrison was perhaps most recognizable performing at PG showcases – 14 in all, ranging from regional stages to national platforms.
He was at the 2008 PG Showcase at the PG All-American Classic in Los Angeles and returned to that same event in 2009, this time in San Diego. He was at the 2009 PG Junior National Showcase in Minneapolis and a year later at the elite PG National Showcase in St. Petersburg, Fla. The 2010 PG National produced 19 first-round or first-round compensation draft picks, including Harrison.
“You got to play against the best guys, and that’s always nice,” he said of the showcase experiences. “It’s fun to go out there and play and it’s pretty laid-back. One thing that helped me is that I started those things so early, so I wasn’t nervous when I went to the big ones later on. A lot of those guys, their whole draft stock might be riding on (one event) and how they do in batting practice there, so fortunately Mike Spiers had me doing this stuff really young and I was pretty comfortable out there.”
Ranked the No. 18 national prospect in the class of 2011, Harrison was a shoe-in to be invited to the 2010 Perfect Game All-American Classic in San Diego. He remembered that he roomed with Austin Hedges – a second-round pick of the San Diego Padres in the 2011 draft – and that in his first at-bat he faced left-hander Daniel Norris, a second-round pick of the Toronto Blue Jays in 2011. Harrison and Norris went on to become close friends, and Norris is also playing in the Midwest League this season with the Lansing (Mich.) Lugnuts.
“It was a good experience; I really enjoyed it,” Harrison said.
David Rawnsley, PG’s vice president of player personnel, noted in the 2011 PG MLB Draft Report he filed on Harrison that so much exposure in front of the scouts could be viewed as a “mixed blessing” even for someone as skilled as Harrison. Rawnsley ultimately reached the conclusion the positives greatly out-weighed the negatives.
“There are few players in the 2011 high school draft class that scouts have seen more or have a firmer handle on his talent,” Rawnsley wrote. “… An added benefit of Harrison’s extended exposure to scouts has been the obvious realization that he enjoys playing the game and ranks with any player in his desire to be on the field.”
When Baseball Prospectus named Harrison the No. 9 top prospect in the Twins’ organization last month, it was based strictly on his talents at the plate. In its analysis, BP wrote:
“Tons of raw power; batting practice prowess to draw crowds; bat speed is very strength-driven at present; projects to hit for at least plus game power; hit tool has some backers; makes hard contact to all fields; hands and hips work very well.”
Both Harrison and Mauer have been pleased with the young prospect’s progression to date. He turned 20 years old in October and had played in only 78 games as a professional through April 25, 2013.
“He’s gotten a lot better, even just from spring training; he’s improved a lot,” Mauer said. “Offensively, he’s got the ability to hit the ball the other way with power and I think he’s going to be able to hit for a little bit of average. The main thing is just keeping him quite, staying still, not drifting with the pitch.
“He’s just starting out in his career, and so far so good. We like what we see and we like his (work) ethic and him as a person, and we think he can be pretty good.”
“You learn something every day,” Harrison said. “It could be anything: hitting, defense, base-running, picking up on different pitchers. One thing that I’ve really improved on that I never really did in high school is reading pitchers and understanding them and what they try to do. Last year really helped just knowing what I have to do for myself to get ready every single day.”
The idea now is to keep climbing the ladder. Harrison may be getting acclimated to the Midwest League, but it’s just the beginning of his journey.
“If it was up to me, I’d be playing in Minnesota right now, but it’s totally out of my control,” he said with a knowing smile. “I can only play as good as I can play, and (the Twins) are going to make those decisions for me. I feel like if I do what I need to do and I play well and stay focused, that will take care of itself. Of course, I would want to keep moving up every single day.”