Sizing Up Harper

BA's Dave Perkin scouted the draft's top prospect in a weekend series

LAS VEGAS—Bryce Harper, the top prospect for the 2010 first-year player draft in June, once again put his considerable talents on display April 30-May 1. Only 17 years old, the young phenom led his JC of Southern Nevada squad to doubleheader sweeps on Friday and Saturday at home against the JC of Eastern Utah.

Southern Nevada plays in the six-member, wood-bat Scenic West Athletic Conference. Morse Stadium, CSN's home field, is a pristine and immaculately maintained field—one of the finest amateur ballparks in the West.

A catcher/outfielder who bats left and throws right, Harper is the most heavily promoted and publicized position prospect in the 45-year history of the amateur draft. In an unusual step, Harper passed a GED exam last year and skipped his final two years of high school in order to play at CSN. That strategy makes him eligible for the 2010 draft instead of the 2011 draft.

Last summer, Sports Illustrated trumpeted Harper as baseball's answer to LeBron James—a teenage prodigy and unprecedented once in a lifetime talent.

Opinions among baseball insiders are lavish but considerably more restrained. Most scouts agree Harper is the top player available in this year's draft, which was true entering the year even after his hitless, three-strikeout performance in last year's Aflac All-American game. One regional supervisor said of the game, "The greatest player ever? The only thing I've seen him do is strike out!"

The comment was overly skeptical and made in jest, but it does illuminate a point in reference to Harper. He is a wonderfully gifted player but by no means a perfect one, and for some the expectations are so high, it's impossible to fulfill them. It will have to be enough for Harper to be this draft's top talent.

Harper is blessed with two top-of-the-scale tools—tremendous power and a cannon arm. He's athletic enough to have played third base, right field, center field and even shortstop for CSN this year, and scouts are divided on whether he fits better behind the plate or in right. While his arm strength and athleticism would play in right field, his jumps and routes can be inconsistent, and he'd need work to be an average defender.

As a catcher, Harper has average receiving skills with solid hands and good flexibility. Despite his premium arm strength, his pop times range from 1.90 to 1.99; with his near-80 arm strength, times of 1.80-1.85 should be attainable. His throws have terrific velocity and straight line carry, but because he wraps the ball behind his neck prior to releasing it, adding unnecessary time to his delivery.

"As a catcher, he has much more draft value," one veteran scout with both a pro and amateur background said. "He's not much of an outfielder. His swing has a tendency to get long on the back end, and he fights pulling off the ball. But if he comes out as a catcher, he's 1/1 (first round, first pick) for me. You've got a lefthanded-hitting, power-hitting catcher, and you don't get those too often."

At the plate, Harper's prodigious power is almost entirely a function of terrific natural bat speed. His swing can get long on the back end from time to time, and on occasion he'll shift his hands downward and into his body, eliminating leverage. His swing path is inconsistent, and he struggles with breaking balls and offspeed stuff. Like many hitters, he has consistent difficulty in handling pitches on the outside corner at the knees.

"I like him a lot; he's a heck of a hitter," another scout added. "He hits the fastball as good as anybody and can drive the ball the other way. The bat plays anywhere you put him. He can really throw. His release takes some time, but he has an absolute cannon. He may move from catcher only because of the wear and tear. But if he stays as a catcher, the sky's the limit."

There can be no doubt that Harper has enjoyed a terrific season in 2010. Competition in the SWAC is generally substandard, but an elite prospect in amateur baseball rarely faces opposition equal to his ability level until he reaches professional baseball, and Harper is at least two years younger than most of his competition.

One scout present praised Harper's performance this year, stating: "He's very strong. The pressure has been on him this year, and he has produced." In 51 games through May 1, Harper was hitting .417/.507/.899 and had blasted 21 homers with 64 RBIs.

Another scout expressed worry not regarding Harper's talent, but on the effect money and hype may have on him: "He has a ton of talent, but it's hard for a 17-year-old who gets that much money to stay hungry and driven to become the best player he can be. It's very hard work to get to the major leagues and the track record for teenagers who get giant bonuses is very poor . . . They change when they get the money. If you have $10 million in the bank and you have teenage hormones, it's hard to bust your tail and slave yourself to earning a $400,000 major league minimum salary. It takes an unusually mature and motivated kid to accomplish that."

In addition to his prodigious tools, Harper is one of the quirkiest players scouts have witnessed. He smears an elaborate amount of eye black on his face. Prior to entering the batter's box, Harper rubs his palms in the dirt, spits in his hands, and then rubs his palms in the dirt once more. He enters the box and rubs more dirt on his hands. Harper then takes his stance, touches the corners of the plate with his bat, and then taps his front toe with the bat barrel.

None of the quirks will matter if Harper delivers on his impressive talent. He projects as a perennial all-star catcher or right fielder who on a yearly basis should produce 30 homers, 100 RBIs and an average in the .275-.290 range. He'll have a high strikeout total each season, around 125 to 150.

Other scouts weighed in with their views. One American League area scout said he'd move Harper to the outfield right away. "He can use his tools," the scout said, "keep his legs, and his mobility is OK. And he has a plus-plus arm. He has big power. I see him as a 40-home run guy, but .300 is a stretch . . . because of his timing issues.

"The minors will be his first real competition. This whole thing about him making the majors at 19 is nonsense. The Nationals (assuming he's drafted No. 1 overall) aren't stupid. They'll let him progress properly."

It is virtually impossible for anyone—particularly a 17 year old—to live up to the enormous and at times ridiculous hype that has been heaped upon Harper. While he is not the "second coming" and does not project as the greatest player of all time, Harper still figures to be pretty darn good. For the 2010 June draft-admittedly weak on hitters—Harper is without question the premier bat available.