All eyes on Harper as Draft approaches
Presumptive top pick appears to be rare hitting talent
Last year, it was Strasburgapalooza. This year, it's looking more and more like Harper-bole.
For the second straight year, it appears that the First-Year Player Draft, at least as it pertains to the No. 1 overall pick, is going to live up to the hype. A year ago, it was Stephen Strasburg who came into the spring as the presumptive top pick, and that's how it played out. This year, all the talk was about young phenom Bryce Harper and how he'd make the leap from high school junior to junior college, then to the top of the Draft. The general consensus is that's exactly what will transpire when the Washington Nationals announce their selection on Monday, June 7.
An informal survey of the game's scouting directors shows agreement that, when all is said and done, the Nationals will use their second consecutive No. 1 overall pick to take the player considered to be the top talent in the Draft. Undoubtedly, the signing process will not be an easy one, but at least Washington and general manager Mike Rizzo have plenty of experience in these kinds of negotiations with Harper's advisor, Scott Boras.
It would be hard to blame them if, in fact, that is the direction they take. The baseball world wanted to see how this unusual tale would unfold. Harper's billing mirrors that of another teenage prodigy, basketball's LeBron James. Like James, Harper was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a high school student. Harper was featured in the June 8, 2009, issue and is called LeBryce as a result. Harper, who 17-year-old, should be a junior in high school but instead opted to take his GED and head to junior college at the College of Southern Nevada.
There was some head scratching and some concern when that happened, worry that Harper was giving up his last remnants of his childhood. Sure, there are those who will nitpick and find things to critique -- who wouldn't when considering the amount of money the Nationals, or any team, will likely have to spend to sign him -- but it's hard to fault a kid who entered a weekend series against Salt Lake Community College hitting .417/.507/.899, with a school-record 21 home runs, in 51 games. All of those numbers, as a reminder, have come with a wood bat in his hands.
"You have a 17-year-old kid who should be a junior in high school, hitting over .400, that's just ridiculous," said one longtime scout, who agreed Harper should be the top pick on June 7. "He can run, he can throw. I compare the bat speed to when I saw Manny Ramirez and Ken Griffey Jr. in high school. It stands alone, really.
"Like with those two guys, there'll be scouts who pick him apart and say he can't do this or that. If that's what you choose to do, and the way you scout, that's fine. He has exceptional tools and has the aptitude and makeup that should make him a very good player."
Some of the criticism has been less with his skills but with his maturity between the lines. There have been a few reports of taunting and perhaps a little too much on-field arrogance for some. That doesn't bother others, who point to his age and the intense spotlight -- even if it was self-made because of his decision -- that's been on him this year.
"You just don't know the world he's lived in, the Sports Illustrated, the attention; it's just not normal stuff," one American League scouting executive said. "For him to go into a college, regardless of the level, hitting with a wood bat, and he's just done it, I knew he'd do well, but I'm surprised he's done as well as he's done.
"He's the most critiqued player out there. It says a lot for his makeup and how mentally tough he is. There's no question who the other team wants to beat every game. They're going out of their way to make it tough for him, and he's handled it all. He plays the game the right way. He's a hard-nosed kid, a throw-back guy with a lot of tools."
The one part of his game that has been questioned is his defensive work behind the plate. Some think he will be an outstanding catcher, others think he has mechanical flaws that cannot be corrected. There will always be the idea that a bat like his shouldn't be worn down by the rigors of catching every day. He's played all over the field for College of Southern Nevada, spending time behind the plate, at third, in center field and in right. Still, many scouts believe that he should at least begin his pro career as a catcher
Unlike with Strasburg, who everyone knew wouldn't need too much time to get to the big leagues, no one expects Harper to zip right to Washington, if that's the team that takes him. At his age, it will take some development time and, with that, comes the opportunity to give him every chance to catch, knowing he's got enough other skills to handle moving if that's the final determination.
"I think he can catch," the AL scouting executive said. "When you're an athlete and you have the tools to do it -- and I know he wants to do it -- I wouldn't hesitate to put him back there. You're not going to lose anything by pursuing the catching. The bat's good enough, and he's a good enough athlete, that you're going to be able to put him in another spot. But when you're talking about a Joe Mauer-potential type catcher, they just don't grow on trees."
If all of this plays out accordingly, and Harper is indeed the first player taken in the Draft, signs and is able to begin his pro career, then it would be difficult to find anyone who still thinks that Harper was wrong to leave high school early and head to college.
"That's why he wanted to go get the GED and go to junior college," said the longtime scout, who admitted he was opposed to the decision when he first heard about it. "He could work his butt off in high school and get walked four times every game. How much fun would that be? I think it worked out great for him."
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.