As Draft day nears, focus falls on Harper
Nationals appear poised to take phenom, but questions remain
It no longer seems a question of if for Bryce Harper, but rather when and for how much.
The "if" that's been answered is if he'll go No. 1 overall in Monday's First-Year Player Draft. While there's been no official confirmation as of yet, the general consensus is that the Washington Nationals will take him with the top pick.
And who can blame them, really? With as much, if not more, hype than any previous amateur player, Harper has more or less delivered. He should be finishing his junior year of high school; instead he was setting school records in junior college.
MLB.com will offer live coverage and analysis of the entire Draft on Monday-Wednesday. Round 1 and Compensation Round A will be held on Monday at MLB Network's Studio 42 in Secaucus, N.J. Those 50 selections will be broadcast on MLB Network and simulcast live on MLB.com/Live. Coverage begins with the Draft preview show at 6 p.m. ET.
On Tuesday at noon, the Draft will continue with the rounds 2-30, via conference call from MLB Headquarters in New York. Rounds 31-50 will be on Wednesday, beginning at noon. Both days will be carried live on MLB.com/Live.
The Harper story by now is well-told: He left high school early and enrolled at the College of Southern Nevada for the challenges of better competition, with the added bonus of being draft-eligible a year early. While most knew he was immensely talented, no one was quite sure how he would perform at that age, at that level, and in a conference that uses wood bats, no less. He responded by hitting .442 with a .524 on-base percentage, a .986 slugging percentage, 29 homers and 89 RBIs in 62 games heading into the Junior College World Series. The College of Southern Nevada record for homers before Harper arrived was 12, to provide some perspective. He added two more homers and eight RBIs in one of those World Series Games. He's hit so well it's hard to consider a scenario where the Nationals wouldn't take him.
The "when" is when that bat will be big-league ready. His adviser, Scott Boras, has already hinted that perhaps having him catch -- his primary position -- as a professional wouldn't be prudent. Perhaps he's right. While many feel Harper could be a big-league catcher some day, there are also some who question his ability there. Staying behind the plate, the theory goes, could delay his ascension to a big-league lineup as he learns the nuances of his defensive craft. Harper has played third and the outfield at CSN and many feel he could be an oustanding right fielder as a professional. Without the pressure of catching, he could be ready to use his raw power in the Majors within a couple of years.
"He definitely has a chance to be an impact middle-of-the-order bat," one scouting director said. "Not sure what position he will end up at, but he profiles well for several positions."
The "how much" question is the toughest, and perhaps most delicate, one to answer. There is no question Harper is a unique talent. But is he a once-in-a-generation type? Is he the best hitting prospect in Draft history, one that could command a record-sized bonus?
Obviously, his adviser thinks so. Boras has made it clear that he thinks Harper belongs in the rarified air of another of his clients, Stephen Strasburg. Strasburg received a record $15.1 million bonus, nearly $5 million more than the previous high for a pitcher (Mark Prior, 2001). The top bonus package for a position player was awarded to Mark Teixeira, also in 2001, for $9.5 million.
It would come as no surprise if another record deal is sought by Harper. If he is indeed the type of prospect that comes along only slightly more frequently than Halley's Comet, it stands to reason he should be compensated as such.
"Some people think that he will get between Tex and Strasburg," an agent, who's active in the Draft, said. "I can definitely see that, at around $11 and $12 million, but Boras really pushing for $15 million or above would really not surprise me.
"He has more leverage than Strasburg, in my opinion, as a bat. I would ask for more and do so with hard evidence about bats. If I had to bet on it, if Washington draws the line, I'd probably go conservative and say $11 or $12 million because he will not walk away from that."
Leverage does seem to be an important issue. Because of his age and level, Harper does have the option to walk away from a deal and return for another year of junior college ball. Technically, any draftee has the option of not signing, but a college junior loses all leverage if he returns for his senior year. In Harper's case, he could be re-drafted a few times and still be extremely young.
"It's interesting because you don't necessarily want to give a big-league deal to a 17-year old," the scouting director said. "He has all of the leverage in the world and can be drafted every year. Even after his fourth draft he'll only be 21. He's definitely the most interesting hitter that I can think of."
Adding to the intrigue are some of the question marks that have come along the way. There are the minor ones about his defensive home, but the bigger ones have come within the realm of the increasingly-important "makeup" category. Harper is, by most accounts, a very self-confident young man. Some would say arrogant, others would label him as immature.
To some, it's major blemish. To others, it's something he'll grow out of. This part of the debate certainly didn't quiet down when Harper was ejected from what proved to be his final game of the season -- and perhaps his amateur career -- on Wednesday in the Junior College World Series. Harper questioned a called third strike by drawing a line in the dirt where he felt the pitch was. Though Harper didn't say a word, the line-drawing is an evident no-no, and usually grounds for an automatic ejection.
The NJCAA has a rule that if a player gets ejected, he has to sit out the next game. If he gets ejected twice in a season, it's a two-game suspension. Harper was thrown out of a game early in the year when he bowed in response to derisive cheering from an opponent's dugout. There hadn't been any issues since, but the most recent expulsion kept him out of the lineup on Thursday as his teammates lost in their elimination game on a walk-off home run.
"There have been some question marks," one long-time scout said. "If you're picking No. 1, you should have no questions. With Strasburg, there were no questions. When Joe Mauer came out, all they said about him was that he was big [for a catcher]. When you're making that decision, the person's just as important as the ability, maybe moreso with a 17-year-old."
"It would take [guts] to not take him. But I think we're making a monumental mistake as an industry if we give him that kind of money. I'm not saying he's not deserving of going No. 1. I just don't think he's worth $12 million."
That, ultimately, will be up to Harper, his adviser and the Nationals to figure out between the time his name is called shortly after 7 p.m. ET on Monday and the signing deadline on Aug. 16.
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.