SCOTTSDALE, Ariz.--Salt River Rafters outfielder Monte Harrison was always viewed as more of an athlete than a baseball player during his first three seasons with the Brewers. There were tales of his supreme athleticism from his high school days in Lee’s Summit, Mo., which were bolstered by numerous YouTube videos highlighting his football and basketball exploits.
Throughout the early part of his professional career, Harrison tantalized with his top-of-the-scale tools. His development as a player was slowed by several injuries, most notably a serious ankle injury he sustained in 2015 while playing for Rookie-level Helena.
Now, Harrison is starting to pair his elite athleticism with improving baseball skills. An outstanding 2017 season split between low Class A Wisconsin and high Class A Carolina has him zooming up prospect lists. He ranks as the No. 5 prospect in a very rich Brewers system, up from No. 20 a year ago, and placed as the seventh-best prospect in the Carolina League. Harrison posted a combined slash line of .272/.350/.481 with 21 home runs and 27 stolen bases during the regular season.
The 22-year-old righthanded hitter is continuing his breakout year in the Arizona Fall League, where in the first five weeks he's put up a .275/.310/.625 slash line with four home runs in just 40 at-bats. The first two homers came in his fourth game, when he also drove in seven runs. His most impressive blast this fall came off a Tyler Beede 93-mph fastball during a game last week at Salt River Fields. The ball left his bat faster than 110 mph and traveled more than 400 feet.
As a taxi squad player for the Rafters, Harrison is permitted to play just two games a week, but he's still met the goals he set coming into the AFL. Improving his pitch recognition and cutting down on strikeouts were key for Harrison.
"Just keep getting better with my approach," Harrison said when asked about his primary emphasis for the fall. "Approach is very important to the game. Every time I talk to my hitting coach that's all we talk about ... to get that great mindset and translate it to the game."
Rafters hitting coach Brent Del Chiaro, a coach in the Brewers’ system during the regular season, is seeing Harrison's progress despite the limited playing time.
"The game's really starting to slow down for him," Del Chiaro said. "You can really see it ... from his approach, his direction, his path … Everything he's doing at the plate right now looks like he's playing on a regular basis, but he's playing two days a week. When he's doing that and the game looks slow to him, it's scary what can happen when he plays every day."
While it's obvious that Harrison's baseball skills are catching up to the raw athleticism, he's still got the complete tools package that made him a highly-recruited three-sport athlete coming out of high school. A plus runner with strong baserunning instincts and the range to stay in center field, he has at least an above-average arm, flashing plus, that will play in right field. At 6-foot-3 and a solid 220 pounds, Harrison certainly looks the part.
His ankle injury two years ago is now a distant memory, with no lingering effects. Harrison said he had to fight through some aches and pains for about a year and a half after the injury, but now feels normal. The same goes for a hamate injury that he suffered last year.
The time away from the field during those two injuries was in some ways a blessing for Harrison.
"Off the field, you learn a lot of things about yourself and about the game," Harrison said. "I took the opportunity to sit in the stands ... watching those games and (learning) how I can slow the game down. When I came back it was a whole different ballgame. I was renewed, and I had a lot of fire."
That fire he spoke of is reflected in his outstanding work ethic.
"He doesn't take a day off from the cage with me," Del Chiaro said. "We're out there working whether he's playing or he's not playing. His mental fortitude ... he wants to find a way to get better every day."
Harrison starred in baseball, football and basketball in high school, and passed up a football scholarship to Nebraska to sign for $1.8 million when the Brewers took him in the second round of the 2014 draft. He believes the aggressive nature needed for those other sports has helped considerably during his baseball career, bringing him the extra energy he needs to thrive in the game.
With college football season in full swing, it wouldn't be out of the ordinary for Harrison to wonder what might have happened had he taken the scholarship to play wide receiver for Nebraska. But, he's never regretted the decision to sign with the Brewers.
"Sometimes you think about it," Harrison said, "but at the end of the day I know what I love. I get to come out here and play baseball every day."