Coming into this spring, Bryce Harper was universally seen as the top player in the draft, but the chances of Washington taking him with the first pick were initially handicapped as a 50/50 proposition. Harper's performance so far at the College of Southern Nevada has changed those chances significantly, as he's basically given the Nationals no excuse to pass on him by batting .401/.494/.866 with wood bats in a junior college league at the age of 17. He's crushed 17 home runs (the team has just 45) in 142 at-bats, drawn 26 walks, and even stolen 13 bases in 15 attempts while playing catcher, third base, and some center field.
Nats general manager Mike Rizzo has consummated numerous contracts in the past with super-agent Scott Boras, including Stephen Strasburg's record-breaking deal last August, so that's another non-factor. Still, while the chances of Washington selecting Harper slowly creep to "lock" status, there are still four questions remaining.
The Number: We're not talking about statistics anymore, we're talking about money, and there's little clarification as to just how high we'll go. The first part to understanding the problem is to know how Boras historically negotiates. Boras never just provides a number, there's always a baseline comparison, then adjustments for history (inflation). For example, Strasburg was Mark Prior plus inflation; any great hitter is Mark Teixeira plus inflation. With Harper, there is no baseline to begin at, as there's no precedent for a talent like his when it comes to age and proven ability. "You know that money is going to be extreme," said one team official, "but I have no idea where it is going to end up." Adding to the potential problem is Boras' recent public statement bemoaning the difference between what American and international players sign for as amateurs. Projections range wildly, from a figure of $7 to $8 million—which would make him the highest-paid teenager ever—to a number that exceeds Strasburg's $15.1 million, as Boras might not be willing to go backward after breaking the bank in 2009.
The Leverage: Without question, Harper is the most leveraged talent in draft history, and that could play a major role in this summer's negotiations. He's 17, and he's the best player in the draft. "He certainly could say, 'Give me this crazy amount of money or I'll go back to school and do it again,'" said one scouting director. "The thing here is that it would not hurt him in the least. He would do it again, and next June he'd be only 18, and the same age as most high school picks." This leverage does only last for one year, however, and the current CBA expires after the 2011 season, and changes to the draft, especially in terms of bonuses, are expected to be a major issue in the upcoming negotiations.
The Body: Harper is listed at 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds, but most think he's about an inch taller and 10 more pounds than that. To be fair, Harper is a chiseled athlete, with no complaints about his current frame, but some wonder just what he will look like when he's 25. There's an excellent chance that he looks like Joe Mauer (6-foot-5 and 230) or Matt Wieters (also 6-foot-5, and 225), but there is some fear at the outside chance of him ending up like Adam Dunn, who at this point is 6-foot-6 and is listed at 287, and is a slow, range-less behemoth. That was not always the case: Dunn was 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds coming up through the Reds’ system, and had back-to-back 20-steal seasons in his first two full years. Like Dunn, Harper is so big so early in life that it has to be at least a minor concern.
- The Makeup: This should not be underrated. It's impossible to find any talent evaluator who isn't blown away by Harper's ability on the field, but it's equally difficult to find one who doesn't genuinely dislike the kid. One scout called him among the worst amateur players he's ever seen from a makeup standpoint, with top-of-the-scale arrogance, a disturbingly large sense of entitlement, and on-field behavior that includes taunting opponents. "He's just a bad, bad guy," said one front-office official. "He's basically the anti-Joe Mauer." How this plays into the negotiation or future evaluation is yet to be determined, as history has shown us that the bigger talent a player is, the more makeup issues teams will deal with. Bench players can't afford to be problems, but plenty of teams happily put up with difficult superstars.
Make no mistake, these are all very real issues, but as of today none of them is keeping Washington from selecting Harper with the first pick on June 7. He's hardly "Baseball's LeBron," he's simply a unique player, and one who happens to be the most talented player in this draft by a wide margin.