Will Harper be the next big thing?
Five-tool teenager could be the top pick in 2010 Draft
He's been on the cover of Sports Illustrated. He's been called baseball's version of LeBron James. Scouts say there isn't much he can't do on the baseball field. At this point, if someone said Bryce Harper could come up with a comprehensive health care reform plan, people would be apt to believe it.
But will he be the No. 1 pick in the 2010 First-Year Player Draft? There's a big test, hopefully a season at the junior college level and a grand total of nine months before that final call is made. But there's little doubt teams picking at the top of the first round will be watching his every move.
Who's No. 1?
These days, most are paying attention to the top of the standings and who's heading to the playoffs. Magic numbers up there refer to when a team will clinch a postseason spot. Turn the standings on its head, however, and it's a whole different "magic" number.
Heading into Saturday's slate of games, the Washington Nationals had a six-game edge -- lead doesn't seem to be the proper term -- over the Pittsburgh Pirates for the rights to the No. 1 pick in 2010. Their magic number to clinch the top pick for the second year in a row stands at 11 (any combination of Washington losses and Pirates wins totaling 11 means the Nats will pick first). The Kansas City Royals, Orioles and Indians round out the top five.
"I think our process is in place in that regard. It'll be the third time in my career I've picked 1-1," said Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo, referring to Stephen Strasburg last year and when he selected Justin Upton No. 1 overall as the scouting director for the Arizona D-backs in 2005. "Our staff is prepared for it. We've done a lot of ground work in preparation for it.
"Last year's experience will certainly aid us in how to ramp up to get to the pick. Obviously, signing the pick we'll have to discuss at a later date." Last year, it was assumed early on that the "race" for No. 1 would be a Strasburg sweepstakes, and that's how it played out. Harper has been on the radar for quite some time, and it's been generally assumed for a while that he'd be anointed the top talent in his Draft class.
Passing the test
Of course, most thought that would be the class of 2011, after the ultra-talented catcher graduated from high school. Now that timetable appears like it will be pushed up one year, to this coming June. Harper, 16, enrolled in the College of Southern Nevada and is preparing to take his GED exam in October, a week after his 17th birthday.
If he passes that test, he'll have officially graduated high school and will thus be eligible for the Draft as a junior college student. Officially, Harper isn't on the school's baseball team just yet. But he's able to work out and partipate in the fall scrimmage season while waiting to see if he can officially become a JUCO prospect.
"He can practice and take classes," said South Nevada coach Tim Chambers. "In junior college, for fall ball you don't have to submit a roster to the national office because it's not games that count. He's allowed to play in those."
Right now, he's preparing to play for the 18 and Under U.S. National team in the 2009 COPABE Pan Am "AAA" (18U) Championships, to be held in Venezuela later this month and into October. He's a veteran of USA Baseball, having won gold in Mexico last year in the same tournament for the 16 and Under level.
"Playing for Team USA, it's been my main goal all year," said Harper on Friday, the day he was officially announced as a part of the Venezuela-bound roster. "I played in Mexico last year, and there's nothing like the feeling of standing on the baseline hearing the National Anthem. I get chills every time. You put the USA jersey on and you feel it. You can have your high school jersey or your college jersey, but there's nothing like wearing that USA jersey and representing your country."
Harper laying low
Prior to joining Team USA, Harper had slid into the background a little after taking a turn around the summer showcase circuit, going to USA Baseball's Tournament of the Stars as well as the acclaimed AFLAC All-American Game.
Scouts who saw Harper at AFLAC did voice some concerns. While the physical tools were all still there, he didn't make very good adjustments during the game and, to some, seemed a bit behind from where the bar had been set. Was it just one bad day? Was it the weight of the expectations, the hype taking its toll? Or maybe it was just a question of him needing to take a step back from everything to recharge the batteries.
One thing seemed certain: he needed a break. So, when Harper returned to Las Vegas, Nev., Chambers gave him a forced vacation of sorts. He didn't practice with the team. Media interviews were all but completely cut off. He wasn't asked to do autograph sessions.
He had dropped 20-25 pounds over the summer and Chambers felt he needed the time to take a breath, get his strength back and re-focus on just playing the game rather than trying to outperform those lofty expectations.
"He was at 180-185 pounds and he's supposed to be 205. He's back there now," Chambers said. "He was physically tired and, in my opinion, mentally tired, from the long summer and all the attention."
Last five High School No. 1 overall picks
|2008||Tim Beckham||SS||Tampa Bay|
|2003||Delmon Young||OF||Tampa Bay|
"Going home, being able to rest, I came down here strong," Harper said. "I feel really, really good.
Managing the demands
Come the spring, all those distractions will come flying up again, and then some. It's likely that Chambers and the College of Southern Nevada have never dealt with the onslaught that's sure to come from teams, fans and the media.
"I think it's an aspect that's changed or added to how we evaluate a player," Royals assistant general manager for scouting and player development J.J. Picollo said. "Players in previous years, even 10 years ago, you seamlessly went into a pro career without the media attention. Now, you evaluate a player with the attention, you look at makeup. Will they be able to withstand the media attention? It is a question we have to answer: Will they be able to hold up to it?
With that in mind, Chambers and the program at CSN have been preparing to deal with all that comes their way, both positively and negatively.
"We've already set a plan," said Chambers, who said the school has tried to work some things out with scouts to streamline the typical vision and psych tests performed on potential draftees, expecting the demand for Harper's information to be pretty high. "We expect it will be a circus out there. We're prepared for what's going to happen. It's going to be all about our team."
Who's No. ... 30?
Chambers thinks the timing of Harper's arrival is perfect . A talented roster and teammates that are familiar to Harper -- including his brother Bryan -- could help alleviate the pressure.
"We've got a lot of local guys. They've all played together growing up," Chambers said. "He's got his brother picking on him there, too. He's just one of the guys.
"He fits right in. We're fortunate this is the most talented team we've ever had. We would've been very good anyway. He won't have that pressure to carry the team. That's kind of the plan. That's why we shut the media down, so he's just one of the other guys on the team. So it's not the 'Bryce Harper Show.' I don't think there's going to be any pressure in terms of that."
Can he live up to the hype?
In the 2009 Draft, it was all about Strasburg. He was the greatest pitching prospect of all time, good enough to step right into a big league rotation immediately. He would -- and ultimately did -- set a record in terms of a signing bonus. There were more people focusing on the Draft than ever before.
"The top of the Draft, it gets more and more attention," said Pirates scouting director Greg Smith, who, as of now, will have the No. 2 pick in the 2010 Draft. "Part of that is because of the money being such a big part of the dynamic. In Strasburg's case, last year, we're talking one of the better amateur players to come through the Draft."
|"Is he the best I've ever seen? No. Is he impressive? Sure. He's got a lot going for him. But I can't say he's better than, say, Alex Rodriguez as a junior in high school."|
|-- Pirates scouting director Greg Smith|
He can be too aggressive, they say. His swing has morphed too much into a batting-practice, showcase-impressing kind of approach, others noted. Just being able to go out and play, now with Team USA and later with his new college team, might cure all of that. And, as one scout pointed out, with a player that young: "You always come back to the physical tools. He's got what a lot of other kids don't."
But is he the superhero he's been made out to be? The scouting industry sometimes can have a selective memory when it comes to these things. Harper is the latest young phenom, and the here and now is always what's going to stand out.
"You're always intrigued by the good young player," Smith said. "[Harper] put himself on the radar in the summer of 2008. I didn't realize he was that young. You're thinking, "He's the best player here and he's only 15. When you have a good young player, because he's good and young, you call him the best you've ever seen.
"Is he the best I've ever seen? No. Is he impressive? Sure. He's got a lot going for him. But I can't say he's better than, say, Alex Rodriguez as a junior in high school."
Perhaps a more important question than if Harper can live up to these expectations is if it's even fair to put them on his young shoulders to begin with. To be sure, some of it is self-inflicted. Leaving high school two years early to go to junior college and enter the Draft a year early, signing on with Boras Corp as an advisor, these are things that will paint a target on your back. This is something Harper knows. It's a challenge, he's stated in the past, that he's looking forward to meeting.
"It is a lot to handle," Rizzo said. "I had this discussion with Justin Upton a year or so back. There was a lot of hype when he was a sophomore in high school, working his way to being top pick.
"Any time a first-round pick -- specifically [an overall No. 1] -- comes out, they do so with a target on their back. Everyone knows he was [No. 1]. The opponents, they know, they want to make a name for themselves against them. It can help and hinder players in their development. It helps knowing people won't take him lightly. It also hinders: They're sometimes 17-18-year-old men who have natural maturation to go through. Sometimes it's a little unfair to ask so much of a young person."
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.