We are just seven months removed from the 2009 baseball amateur draft when the Washington Nationals—picking first—selected Stephen Strasburg, a “once in a lifetime talent” that was being called the “LeBron James of baseball.”
He was so special he more than doubled the record sign bonus, inking a $15.5 million deal with Washington. Scott Boras was his advisor.
In just five months, the 2010 draft will be upon us, and the Washington Nationals will again choose first. And most scouts and fans agree that catcher Bryce Harper of the College of Southern Nevada is a “once in a lifetime talent” who is being called “the LeBron James of baseball.”
He is so special that some baseball executives believe that his signing bonus will be at least as much—and possibly more than—the aforementioned Strasburg.
And, oh yes, the Nationals choose first again. And yes, Scott Boras is his advisor too.
The Nationals are either the luckiest team in the world to be able to draft two once-in-a-lifetime amateurs like Strasburg and Harper or God is getting even with them for something they’ve done.
Strasburg was without question the best player in the draft last year thanks to his back-to-back seasons with San Diego State that has never happened before and will likely never happen again. That multi-million dollar signing bonus he signed will likely be a steal in the long run.
But Strasburg’s talents were quantifiable. Against quality college hitters—using aluminum bats no less—he dominated with a 100 mph fastball and a 90 mph slider, both “plus plus” major league pitches.
But what has Bryce Harper done in his short career that can assure the Nationals he too is a true 15-million-dollar-man?
Granted, when he was a 12-year-old, he went 12 for 12 with 11 home runs and a double in a super-league tournament. But that was just four years ago. And true, he hit a 570-foot home run in a 31-1 high school win two years ago. But it seems as though most of his teammates did the Superman thing that day as well.
And yes, he hit a 502-foot home run at Tropicana Field in Tampa Bay. A 502-foot batting practice home run.
Harper was a man among boys playing high school ball, hitting .616-25-112 over two seasons.
But that was his entire high school career, because believing that he could get no better at that level, Harper obtained his GED and left school after his sophomore year.
This year, he a Coyote for the College of Southern Nevada, a junior-college school in his home town of Las Vegas.
His season started yesterday and Harper—batting third for the top junior college team in the nation—went 1-3 with a walk and two RBI.
But he’s barely 17.
So let’s add this all up. He played four years of Little League and two years in high school along with several super-league summers mixed in there as well.
Add to that one (repeat: one) year of junior college ball and many baseball insiders are anointing Bryce Harper as the “presumptive number-one choice” in the 2010 amateur draft.
To be fair, veteran scouts believe he is the real deal. Replied one National League scout when asked what he liked about Harper, "Everything. He's got a great body. The perfect frame for baseball. A big-time arm behind the plate, but a good enough athlete to do anything you want. His bat speed is ridiculous. I've never seen anything like it. And since last year he's calmed down his approach a little bit. He used to want to go out and get everything. Now it's more under control."
Harper sounds like the real thing. It seems as though he does have that something extra that separates a Nick Johnson from a Albert Pujols. It looks like the kid is a “can’t miss” whiz-kid.
But we all know that Scott Boras can take “sounds” and “seems” and “looks like,” wrap them in a pretty red bow, and squeeze another $15 million out of the Washington Nationals.
There is only one scenario that will bind player and team. If the Nationals select him, Scott Boras will hold out for Strasburg type money. If Harper, who is acknowledged to be a humble and religious young man, placed baseball over money, he would never have taken Boras as his advisor/agent.
After bottoming out during “Smiley-gate,” the Washington Nationals have started a slow but steady climb towards respectability. New general manager Mike Rizzo is well respected and the recent addition of scouts and front-office assistants have impressed the team’s legions of naysayers.
The team was able to sign Strasburg and added two prominent free agents this off-season in Ivan Rodriguez and Jason Marquis.
Things are looking up. Good times are just around the corner. The last thing the Nationals need is to screw things up.
There are three scenarios regarding the signing of Bryce Harper, and two of them are bad. They can draft him but can’t sign him. They can draft him and he turns out to be just the latest “can’t miss” prospect that does. Or they can sign him and he’s every bit the player we think he can be.
The Nationals have a one-in-three shot in succeeding.
But here’s another problem. Scott Boras doesn’t sign his clients to long-term contracts that avoid free agency. There is zero chance that the Nationals will be able to resign Strasburg, and there is zero chance that they could resign Harper.
It took Ryan Zimmerman four seasons before he finally played to his ability. And that’s no knock on Ryan. It takes time for a player to reach their potential. But if Zimmerman was a Boras client, the Nationals would have him for just two more seasons before losing him to free agency. Because he and his agent are reasonable, he’ll be with the Nationals at least through 2013.
The Nationals know that Strasburg is a six-and-done player, and they know that if they sign Harper, he’ll be the same. With Strasburg and his college experience, his learning curve will be rather short. He might struggle a bit in 2010 but by 2011, he’ll be polished enough to lead the team towards a hopeful pennant run.
But the same can’t be said of Harper. Three seasons of post-Little League ball isn’t enough, no matter how good a player is. It took four seasons in the major leagues before Mickey Mantle played like the Mantle we know today. It took Hank Aaron four seasons as well.
Many are comparing Harper to Ken Griffey Jr. who reached the majors at the tender age of 19. In his first four seasons, Griffey averaged .301-22-86 before blossoming. Over his next six seasons, he averaged .310-44-115.
If Bryce Harper is that good, if he is similar to Griffey Jr., then the Nationals will have him for four “nice” seasons and two outstanding ones.
Then—poof!—he gets on the free agency train, never to be seen again.
The Nationals can make do with one Scott Boras number-one client, but not two. I would much rather see the team draft a college pitcher who is considered a solid number-one or two starter, someone who isn’t represented by Scott Boras who—like Ryan Zimmerman and Drew Storen—shows loyalty and wants to not only play in Washington but stay in Washington.
Bryce Harper—through his association with Scott Boras—has shown that he is neither of those.
The Washington Nationals need both continuity and stability as they build their team brick by brick. They just can’t afford to give $17 million to a 17-year-old who even if he does succeed will be gone all too soon.
Let him hit 500-foot batting practice home runs for someone else. The Nationals need one more solid college pitcher, and there are plenty of those in a deep 2010 draft.
I say that while Bryce Harper may indeed be the best player in the draft, I don’t think he’s the best player for the Nationals.
A team can handle only so much of Scott Boras' shenanigans.