Harper's Not A Lock To Go No. 1

Catcher is the top prospect, but he doesn't stand alone





Bryce Harper is just 17, and he already has been hyped more than any player in draft history.

It started when he put on a show at the 2008 Area Code Games as a freshman. It escalated when he smashed a ball of the back wall of Tropicana Field during the 2009 International Power Showcase, a blast that became an instant YouTube classic. It reached another level when Sports Illustrated put him on its cover last June and dubbed him "Baseball's LeBron."

And it continues to grow. Harper took the unprecedented step of bypassing his last two years of high school, getting his GED diploma so he could enroll at the CC of Southern Nevada and become draft-eligible. He instantly became the No. 1 prospect in the 2010 draft.

But for all the hype and all his talent—he's a catcher with off-the-charts power, a strong arm and athleticism—Harper may not be the lock to go No. 1 overall to the Nationals that he has been made out to be. In his first weekend playing for the Coyotes, with 100 scouts in attendance, he went 3-for-15 with a homer. Since then he's upped his average to .349/.420/.744 with three home runs in 11 games. He's going to have a harder time excelling with wood bats against older competition than Stephen Strasburg had overmatching hitters when he was the wire-to-wire top prospect in the 2009 draft.

"He has great tools, a great body, he's athletic and all that," an American League scouting director said. "But he has a tougher hill to climb than Strasburg. Strasburg already had pitched at such an elite level with Team USA, and it's easier to dominate as a pitcher.

"There's a chance Harper doesn't go No. 1. Who knows if he's the No. 1 guy anyway? He'll be an interesting one to follow."

If Washington doesn't kick off the draft June 7 by selecting Harper, it figures to opt for a pitcher. After Harper, Baseball America's next eight top-rated prospects do their work on the mound, led by righthanders Anthony Ranaudo (Louisiana State) and Jameson Taillon (The Woodlands, Texas, HS).

"Every time I look at our follow lists, whether it's by position or by school or by rank, it's 7-8 pitchers and 2-3 hitters out of every 10 guys," another AL scouting director said. "It's early, but our guys are mostly excited about the arms at this point."

The position-player crop isn't as deep, particularly on the college side. The top position prospects at four-year colleges and high schools are both shortstops: Christian Colon (Cal State Fullerton) and Manny Machado (Brito HS, Miami).

Nats Will Spend What It Takes

They won't know for sure until shortly before the draft, but scouting directors already are wondering how much money they'll have at their disposal. After MLB took a laissez-faire approach with its bonus slotting system in 2008, it slashed its bonus recommendations by 10 percent last year and once again leaned heavily on teams to toe the line.

The national economy is still slumping, and the major league free-agent market once again has felt the affects. Some directors speculate that the commissioner's office could try to cut the slots even further, while others conjecture the slots may be restored to their 2008 levels.

Regardless of MLB's efforts a year ago, teams showed how much they value acquiring young talent whose major league salaries will be restricted for the first six years of their careers. The 30 clubs set a new record for draft spending by combining for $189,332,700 in bonuses, up $1 million from 2008.

The Nationals established new marks for the most bonus money spent on one draft ($11.5 million) and on one player ($7.5 million for Strasburg), as well as the biggest guarantee ever given to a player (a $15.1 million big league contract for Strasburg). The second team ever to own No. 1 overall picks in consecutive drafts, Washington now faces the prospect of dealing with Harper, who could re-enter the next three drafts and thus has conceivably more leverage than Strasburg did.

If he has a big year, Harper could shoot for a deal worth somewhere between Strasburg's and the $30 million big league contract Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman commanded from the Reds on the open market this winter. Yet Nationals vice president of player personnel Roy Clark, who spent the previous 10 years as the Braves' scouting director, says talent and not money will dictate his team's choice.

"According to everything I've been told, we'll take the best player as determined by the scouting department—period. Then we'll try to get him signed," said Clark, who was on hand for Harper's debut weekend. "We're going to scout them all, and it'll probably be May before we figure it out."

Like Strasburg, Harper will be advised by the Scott Boras Corporation, whose clients also include Ranaudo, Colon and Machado, as well as two of three highest unsigned picks from the 2009 draft in Chipola (Fla.) JC outfielder LeVon Washington and Kentucky lefthander James Paxton. Taillon will be advised by Hendricks Sports Management.

Angels Have Biggest Bonanza

After having five of the first 48 picks in the 2009 draft, the Angels once again will be picking early and often. After losing free agents Chone Figgins and John Lackey to the Mariners and Red Sox, Los Angeles is the only club with three first-round picks and owns five of the top 40 selections.

Other teams with extra choices include the Astros (two first-rounders, three of the top 33 picks), Rangers (two first-rounders, four of the first 48), Blue Jays (one first-rounder, six of the top 78), Red Sox (one first-rounder, four of the first 56) and Rays (two first-rounders, five of the top 79). Toronto will pick up a third supplemental first-round selection if Rod Barajas signs a major league contract with another club.

The only teams without first-round picks are the Braves, Mariners and Tigers, but they all have supplemental first-rounders