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May 25, 2010

Future Shock

Bryce Harper's Big, Yet Limited Leverage

by Kevin Goldstein

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In terms of pure talent evaluation, baseball's draft is the most difficult among major sports due to the widely varying ranges in age and experience, forcing clubs to look equally at both nearly finished college products and high school players, many who have yet to even physically mature. Confusing things even more is a factor that rarely enters into the other sports. In basketball and football, the order players go off the board is a pretty solid estimation of their talent level, but without defined bonuses for each pick, other than Major League Baseball's routinely-ignored suggestions, signability plays a major factor in where a player is selected in the baseball draft. The biggest factor in gauging signability is leverage, and while College of Southern Nevada catcher Bryce Harper is nearly universally seen as historic on a talent level, his leverage is even more unique.

MLB has done its best to limit leverage over the past decade, eliminating the draft-and-follow system, shortening the signing window from nearly a year to just over two months, and at least trying to create some financial structure with the suggested slots. However, with each new rule comes new opportunities, and nobody finds those better than Harper's agent, Scott Boras.

“He's the king of leverage,” said one front office official. “Hell, he practically invented it.”

Leverage traditionally comes from younger players, as high school players who find teams that don't meet their demands opt for the college game and an opportunity to maintain or improve their sdraft tock down the road. However, for Harper, by leaving high school two years early, getting his GED, and enrolling in a junior college that has no effect on his eligibility, he has created more leverage than any top pick in draft history, as he can return to his junior college next season and be just 18 when the 2011 draft begins—as old as the high school draftees.

“Obviously, this whole move was very well thought out,” said one scouting director. “They didn't rush into this—they knew what they were doing.”

“I can't imagine another 17-year-old being this good, but I also can't imagine any player ever being in this good of a position to get a big bonus,” said Allan Simpson of Perfect Game, the leading draft historian and pioneer of draft coverage.

Ironically, Harper's remarkable performance may have hurt his leverage in some ways, and interestingly enough, so might the current collective bargaining agreement.

Had Harper merely hit something arbitrary, like .300 with 12 home runs, that would have been seen as an unparalleled success and still cemented his status as the top player in the draft by a wide margin. Now, with him exceeding arguably the largest expectations in draft history by a wide margin by consistently keeping his average near .400 and pushing 30 home runs, he may have peaked for some, instead of giving himself a good performance to build on.

“The threat of his leverage is that he'll go back to school and come out the next year,” said one team official. “But is there any way he can be any better than he's been this year?”

Then there is the CBA that ends after the 2011 season. Consistently treated as the redheaded stepchild in previous talks, insiders on both sides of the table believe that the upcoming negotiations will be the one where the draft is finally addressed in a very real manner, including the possibility of a hard slotting system that would all but end the days of the over-slot signing bonus. Thus, the 2011 version of draft candidate Bryce Harper would almost be forced to sign, assuming that his leverage would be reduced dramatically the following year.

So what can one expect for Harper between him being selected first overall on June 7 and the Aug. 17 signing deadline? While talk about his leverage and the possibility of some struggles in junior college were all the rage in February, as teams looked for angles that would have Harper falling, his performance has assured that the window is closed, and the Nationals simply have no other options with their pick.

Only two first overall picks in draft history haven't signed, but they were both before the days of big bonuses and the concept of leverage. In 1971, the cash-poor White Sox selected Illinois high school-star Danny Goodwin, hoping for a hometown discount. They didn't get it (for reference, Goodwin was reportedly looking for a whopping $100,000), and he attended college, once again becoming the No. 1 overall selection four years later. In 1983, Tim Belcher, at tiny Mount Vernon Nazarene University in Ohio, came from out of nowhere to go No. 1 to the Twins, but got nowhere in negotiations, only to be selected six months later by the Yankees in the now-defunct January phase of the draft.

Not signing is not an option anymore; there's just too much at stake for both Harper and the Nationals. In the 1970s and 1980s, only the biggest of baseball geeks even knew the draft existed, and now Harper is a household name. It's been four months since anyone in the game even mentioned the possibility of Harper not signing; now all the discussion moves to money.

Last year, Stephen Strasburg, whose reign as the draft's biggest thing ever will last just one year, broke draft records by signing for a $15.1 million major-league package that included a $7.5 million bonus. That deal was also negotiated by Boras, and he'll be looking to build on it this year. Nobody gets bigger draft deals than Boras, and while he has many tricks in his bag, a reverse gear just isn't in him. Strasburg will just be the starting point, but to find the goal, one might be best-served by looking at Aroldis Chapman, who received over $30 million from the Reds over the winter as a free agent out of Cuba.

“Boras has made no secret of how he feels about Chapman's deal,” said an experienced front office official. “Right or wrong, germane or not, that's what a talent gets on the free market, and now Boras is going to look for something close to it.”

A quick survey of five team insiders went a perfect 5-for-5 in thinking Harper's contract would exceed Strasburg's, with a predicted bonus ranging from $8-10 million and a total package ranging from $16-20 million. But it's Harper's age that that once again comes into play.

“Washington will have a very tough decision with Harper's development,” said one assistant general manager. “His upside as a catcher is through the roof, but that could take some time because of his raw defense. At the same time, you could throw him in right field and he might be in the big leagues before he's 20.”

Such a scenario creates its own problems, as while a quick ascension to the big leagues would be a boon for the Nationals both on the field and in terms of box office, it would also create a situation where Harper is a free agent at 26, just entering his prime, shades of Alex Rodriguez in the winter of 2000.

 “This is baseball, and players, especially the talented ones, are going to get paid,” said another team official, adding with a tinge of begrudging respect, “somebody is always going to find an angle to get their guy a little bit more in the end, and that person tends to be Scott Boras.” 

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

Related Content:  Draft,  Leverage

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