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Frosty Microbrews: Harrison on the comeback trail

January 13, 2016

"It's not all going to happen in one day."

That's what people keep telling 2014 second round pick and 2015 Wisconsin Timber Rattlers outfielder Monte Harrison, who has been rehabbing from a broken ankle since July. Harrison expects to be back at full speed in time for spring training in March. By that point, he'll have been sidelined for over seven months.

"It's coming good," Harrison said of his rehab. "A lot of hard work being put in to it. There's not much you can really say about it. It was kind of a bad injury, but at the end of the day you can't really worry about it. I've still got to come out, work hard and do stuff, rehab right and get back on the field."

It's been a long year for Harrison, who and Baseball America ranked as the #3 and 4 prospects in the Brewers organization, respectively, heading into the 2015 season. A year earlier Harrison was a senior in high school in Lee's Summit, Missouri, and Milwaukee Brewers area scout Drew Anderson said he was "probably one of the best, if not the best, athletes in the country."

"Monte, in particular, stands out from pretty much anywhere I've ever been with his athleticism and his presence," Anderson said. "Being 6'3" and almost 210 pounds in high school he was a man among boys, so he stood out already. And sometimes you do run across some competition levels where it's a little uneven compared to your Californias and your Floridas. But there was no doubt when you walked on the field, you knew exactly who the guy you're looking for was. He looked like a major leaguer out of uniform even in high school."

Harrison's athleticism served him well in his professional debut in the Arizona League, where he batted .261 with a .402 on-base percentage and 32 steals in 34 attempts over 50 games.

"His first season, I was really surprised he went out and did as well as he did in Arizona," Anderson said. "He's coming from a background playing three sports and not really having a ton of time to concentrate on one. So I thought when he went to Arizona it could be a little bit of a struggle because he's going to be facing much better competition."

Competition keeps getting better

Harrison's star continued to rise as the calendar turned to 2015. He was only 19 years old when he played in his first major league spring training game in March. The Brewers assigned him to Wisconsin to open the 2015 regular season alongside 2014 top draft picks Kodi Medeiros and Jake Gatewood.

"I think the Brewers knew it might take him a while. I think initially they were excited because he showed a little bit of a better feel for the game than they thought, and he was improving so quickly in terms of routes and things like that in the outfield," prospect expert Jonathan Mayo said. "So I think that's why they felt comfortable pushing him to Wisconsin to start last year and he just wasn't ready. That happens."

Starting in center field and batting leadoff for Wisconsin on Opening Day, Harrison went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts and committed a fielding error. That day set the tone for a very difficult first half, where he batted just .148 with a .247 slugging percentage before being sent down to Helena on June 11.

"When I was in Wisconsin I wasn't doing so well, I knew it wasn't anything that had to do with anybody else, it was just myself," Harrison said. "When I got to Helena I had to refocus on all that. And I talked to (Brewers minor league hitting coordinator) Jeremy (Reed) and the coaches saying, 'It's not anything, it's just me.' I had some things going on, not trying to make any excuses but, I was definitely moving in a different direction and I was trying to focus on some things and not really worry about other things."

Learning to fail

Anderson follows Harrison and the other players he has scouted and signed closely, regularly checking box scores, reading daily reports on their progress and texting words of encouragement. He tries to avoid piling on, however, when a player like Harrison is struggling.

"I know as a player when you start to struggle not only would he have had me calling him, he would have had his family calling him and he's got all these people in his corner telling him what he needs to do, so I kind of stayed away from him," Anderson said. "I would offer some encouraging thoughts and stuff like that, but mainly you want him to learn how to deal with adversity because that's the hardest thing in baseball. You're going to fail. You've got to figure out a way to work through that and come back the next day."

Harrison credited a changed mindset for his strong start with Helena, where he had 29 hits and scored 20 runs in 28 games. All of that came crashing to a halt, though, when he broke his ankle on July 21. A few hours later Harrison posted a selfie from his hospital bed. Part of the caption read, "all u gotta do is just smiling and get back to work!"

"Truth be told, I honestly don't remember that at all," Harrison said. "They said I kept trying to take selfies or text with everybody but I honestly don't remember. I woke up the next day and saw that and it was kind of like, 'Oh, I didn't know I took that.'"

Not looking back

In addition to being a great baseball player, Harrison was a star football player in high school and had a scholarship offer to play wide receiver for the University of Nebraska. Harrison turned that offer down and, despite his early struggles with baseball, does not regret that decision.

"That part of my life is over," Harrison said. "I'm a baseball player now, so I'm trying not to really focus on that because that's not what I want to be. I want to be a baseball player and be in the big leagues one day."

Stealing a player away from the Cornhuskers was tough for Anderson, a Nebraska alum and lifelong fan.

"At the end of the day I tell people, 'the kid will tell you what he wants to do,'" Anderson said. "When he's the one who wants to play baseball, if it wasn't me giving him the opportunity to play baseball then someone else would have given it to him. So I was super excited that I was the person that was able to give him the opportunity."

Coming back

If his rehab continues to progress on schedule, Harrison will likely return to Wisconsin at some point during the 2016 season. He says he feels like he has something to prove after last season's struggles, but that's not his primary focus.

"My main focus is to go out there and learn the game, do what I'm supposed to do, learn from my coaches and if that happens, and I do really well then that's the outcome," Harrison said. "But working hard, paying attention and focusing on the little things...I feel like everybody has to improve, year over year, even in the big leagues you have something to improve."

Harrison doesn't turn 21 until August, so he has plenty of time to rebound from a difficult year.

"His raw tools are so tremendous that you don't want to write him off just yet, not after one year," Mayo said. "Now, if after three years or whatever it is, he still hasn't started to produce then you start to write him off, but frankly some of those guys still come and end up making it to the big leagues and end up being really good because sometimes it takes them a little longer. So I think it's important to not forget about a guy like Harrison just because of how high his ceiling still is."

"The athletic ability is all there," Anderson said. "The ability to play center field, the instincts, the arm strength, stealing bases and all those things. As he continues to learn how to handle pitching, how to handle breaking balls, handle guys that make adjustments to him and he's able to make adjustments to them… when the light switch comes on he could fly up the ladder quickly."

Wisconsin will give away Monte Harrison bobbleheads on August 22, making him one of just two non-rehabbing members of the 2015 team to be so honored. This is the first time Harrison has ever been featured on a bobble, and he described the experience as "very cool."

"That's something you think, 'Ha ha, I want my own bobblehead.' But nah, I really didn't think it was going to actually happen. It's cool just to have my own bobblehead and know that's going to be out."