Nationals Tab Harper As An Outfielder, Not Catcher

Team hopes to speed No. 1 pick's ascent to the majors





WASHINGTON General manager Mike Rizzo had an announcement to make when he addressed the media on draft night. It wasn't the who, but the where that was somewhat unexpected.

As was widely predicted, the Nationals took 17-year-old junior-college slugger Bryce Harper with the first overall pick. The lefthanded power hitter, though, won't be catching once he starts his career. Instead, he's "outfielder Bryce Harper, from the College of Southern Nevada," as Rizzo revealed.

Harper caught and played in the outfield and at third base with the Coyotes. The first sophomore to win Baseball America's High School Player of the Year award, he passed a GED test so he could face junior-college pitching and enter the draft a year earlier than his high school class. He more than proved himself while playing in a conference that uses wood bats, as he hit .443/.526/.987 with 31 home runs in 228 at-bats. He also stole 20 bases.

The Nationals want Harper to focus his attention on that hitting ability.

"We've made the early decision that we're going to take the rigors and the pressure of learning the difficult position of catcher away from him, and (we will) really let him concentrate on the offensive part of the game and let his athleticism take over as an outfielder," Rizzo said. "He's got above-average speed and a plus-plus throwing arm. We just think it will accelerate his development in the minor leagues and also extend his career as a major leaguer."

While few have questioned Harper's ability, the same cannot be said of his makeup. He was ejected from what likely was his final amateur game.

The Nationals, though, see a gamer who takes his craft seriously.

"We think he's got a chance to be a special type player on the field and a special person off the field," said vice president of player personnel Roy Clark, the former Braves scouting director running his first draft with the Nationals.

Clark, Rizzo and scouting director Kris Kline praised Harper's character, but Rizzo did give a quick answer as to whether the 6-foot-3, 205-pounder from Las Vegas would be allowed to continue to smear eye-black down his cheeks.

"No," Rizzo said.

Despite that prohibition, Rizzo said, "This kid is a baseball rat. We've got a great foundation on where the kid's from. We know him as well as any team in baseball can know a player. We've been scouting him for a long time. We've done a lot of homework on his character and his family background. This kid gets after it like few amateur players have since I've been doing this."

The organization made up its mind that Harper would be its first pick about a month ago, Rizzo said. Kline called him "the only bat in this draft that has the potential to be a three-hole hitter," and also compared him to talented outfielders Larry Walker and J.D. Drew.

Harper is represented by the Scott Boras Corporation, which also advised 2009 No. 1 overall pick Stephen Strasburg. Washington signed the righthander in the final minutes before the Aug. 17 deadline a year ago with a four-year, $15.1 million big league deal that included a $7.5 million bonus.

With that history behind them, Rizzo is optimistic that Harper can be patrolling a corner-outfield spot in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League at some point this summer.

"He's a player that wants to get out and play," Rizzo said. "He's the type of guy that does not enjoy idle time. We have hopes of getting him out to play sooner than August 15th."

CAPITAL GAINS
• The drafting of Harper came one day before the scheduled major league debut of Strasburg, who went 7-2, 1.30 with 65 strikeouts in 55 innings between Double-A Harrisburg and Triple-A Syracuse. Two auxiliary press areas were created for Strasburg's debut, which was drawing a postseason-sized media contingent.

• After having two first-round picks in 2009, the Nationals had no other selections before the second round this year. "In the future, we want to pick (at number) 30 instead of 1," Clark said. A year ago, Washington took righthanded reliever Drew Storen 10th overall, as compensation for not signing righthander Aaron Crow in 2008. Within a year, Storen had 1-0, 1.93 numbers in nine innings as a major leaguer.