Word going around the game is that the country's consensus top amateur player, the already legendary 17-year-old slugging catcher Bryce Harper, who is being advised by Scott Boras, will seek to break last year's record $15.67 million bonus set by Stephen Strasburg after Harper is selected at or near the top of next month's draft.
Of course, at this time last year, the scuttlebutt was that Strasburg might seek to receive a bonus in line with the $51-million positing the Red Sox paid for Daisuke Matsuzaka. And while Boras was believed to have drawn a comparison between Strasburg and Matsuzaka in talks with the Nationals, ultimately Strasburg signed with the Nationals for an amount that was slightly less than a third of what the Red Sox paid for the right to sign Matsuzaka (though still about 50 percent more than the previous record bonus of $10 million for drafted players that Mark Prior and Mark Teixeira got).
The Nationals once again hold the No. 1 pick, which they used last year on Strasburg, who's been stellar at Double-A Harrisburg (Pa.) and is expected to be promoted to the majors around June 1. But they haven't committed yet to taking Harper. Nationals president Stan Kasten responded by text that it's "too early'' to say who they're taking No. 1. But the improving Nats showed last year they aren't scared off by high bonuses -- or Boras.
Harper enters the draft more legendary than Strasburg or -- thanks in part to a Sports Illustratedcover story on him last spring that called him "Baseball's LeBron -- almost anyone else who's ever been drafted. But is he a bigger prospect?
He's still only 17, so there's some variance of opinion as to how he compares to Strasburg, a college junior who was a pretty mature product by the time of last year's draft. There are even differences of opinion over Harper's position and personality.
There does seem to be a consensus about Harper's power, which is seen as nothing short of extraordinary.
"He's the real deal,'' one American League scout said.
"His power is ridiculous,'' a National League scout said.
Most don't view the Las Vegas native as much of a gamble at this point. Some scouts are hesitant to say too much at this time, but at least one said Harper's power is so great that he has to be considered the best player in this draft.
"He's separated himself from the pack,'' one scout said.
Indeed, the power of Harper, a 6-foot-3, 210 pound left-handed hitter, is seen as nothing short of otherworldly. He has 21 home runs -- many of them moonshots -- in 168 at-bats at the College of Southern Nevada against competition that may not be the Pac-10 but still has to be considered quite high for someone who is the same age as most high school juniors. All of those have come in front of scouts for baseball's neediest teams, most prominently the Nationals, who have the No. 1 pick, plus the Pirates and Orioles, who have the second and third picks, respectively.
As is typical of presumptive No. 1 picks, a few knocks have been heard about Harper, mainly involving his storied confidence. Some call it cockiness. He was ejected from one game for taunting, and reportedly was seen bowing after a particularly strong throw. Others completely ignore that chatter, pointing out how anyone would get a big head under the circumstances. "How could you not feel good about yourself if you're on [the cover of] Sports Illustrated at (16)?'' one scout pointed out. Some have also mentioned how he's been programmed to become a star from a young age, like Tiger Woods and former football phenom Todd Marinovich, but that's not necessarily seen as a negative by everyone.
But this is still kid stuff, his handlers point out. He is, after all, only 17. And he is maturing, they say. This was supposed to be Harper's junior year of high school, but to further his baseball career he dropped out of Las Vegas High, got a GED and enrolled in the solid wood-bat league in preparation for the draft.
Some scouts have tried to suggest the pitching he's facing isn't great, but some scouts who've seen him dispute that notion, and others point to the fact he's put up absurd numbers using a wooden bat. In addition to the 21 home runs, he has 64 RBIs, and a .417 batting average, an .899 slugging percentage and a .507 on-base percentage.
The other question is his position. Harper played catcher through high school, and one scout said that while he has "an absolute gun'' of arm (as a pitcher, he's been clocked at 97 mph), he questioned Harper's "set-up'' as a catcher and wasn't certain that would ultimately be his position. Another scout concurred, saying it was too early to judge, and a third scout suggested that right field or third base might work just as well.
The Nats are set at third base with Ryan Zimmerman, but their catcher is 40-year-old Ivan Rodriguez and they are in flux in right field, so they'd have room. The Nats, Pirates and Orioles have been scouting all of Harper's recent games, so presumably he won't get past the third pick. There was a time the top player might slip further due to signability issues, but most teams understand now that a lot of the very top amateurs usually wind up as bargains (Teixeira and Strasburg are examples of that).
As a mature, 21-year-old Division I pitcher with three exceptional pitches, Strasburg was that rare, once-in-a-decade player who had nary a negative. Harper, four years younger, probably can't be considered quite as sure a thing, but he may have slightly more leverage in that Strasburg wasn't likely to return to school for his senior year. It seems a stretch to think that after taking such an accelerated path to this point Harper would forego his first chance to sign.
Next, a look at 25 of the top potential draftees, based on interviews with a half-dozen scouts and scouting directors ...
1. Harper, C, College of Southern Nevada. The talk of the draft.
2. Jameson Taillon, RHP, The Woodlands (Texas) High. Huge arm from a hotbed of pitching prospects, going all the way back to Nolan Ryan.
3. Drew Pomeranz, LHP, U. of Mississippi. Perhaps the top college pitching prospect, he has had an exceptional year, save for a recent nine-walk outing in tough conditions vs. rival LSU.
4. A.J. Cole, RHP, Oviedo (Fla.) High. Tall lad (6-5) with big-time fastball should go high.
5. Manny Machado, SS, Miami (Fla.) High. Some have compared his big bat and excellent defense to another Miami shortstop, Alex Rodriguez, though the more levelheaded scouts call those comparisons "unfair.'' Still, he's said to be "streaking up the charts.''
6. Anthony Ranaudo, RHP, LSU. Looks like a pitcher, getting healthy and moving up.
7. Karsten Whitson, RHP, Chipley (Fla.) High. Big kid (6-4) throws 96 and is said to have excellent mound presence.
8. Zack Cox, 3B, U. of Arkansas. The best Division I hitter in a weak class.
9. Deck McGuire, RHP, Georgia Tech. Throwing well all year.
10. Bryce Bentz, OF, Middle Tennessee St. Big power threat declined to sign when Indians drafted him as a pitcher out of high school.
11. Matt Harvey, RHP, U. of North Carolina. Coming around after disappointing first two years at North Carolina. Big arm with bigger repertoire make him an excellent prospect.
12. Dylan Covey, RHP, Pasadena (Calif.) High. Nice repertoire for prep schooler.
13. Christian Colon, SS, Cal-State Fullerton. Tremendous instincts and defense and some power. Safe bet.
14. Stetson Allie, RHP, St. Edward's (Ohio) High. Thick kid (6-4, 225). Huge arm and about the best velocity in the draft (98 mph).
15. Yasmani Grandal, C, U. of Miami. USA team member may get picked even higher than talent would suggest due to paucity of good catching.
16. Yordy Cabrera, SS, Lakeland (Fla.) High. Combines arm, power and speed.
17. Austin Wilson, OF, North Hollywood (Calif.) High. Stanford recruit is said to have all the tools.
18. LeVan Washington, OF, Chippola JC. Speedster turned down $500,000 offer from Tampa last year.
19. James Paxton, LHP, U. of Kentucky. Improving pitcher may do better after turning down Toronto last year.
20. Gary Brown, OF, Cal-State-Fullerton. Remarkable speed compares to Jacoby Ellsbury.
21. Chris Sale, LHP, Florida Gulf Coast U. Known for sinking fastball and control.
22. Brandon Workman, RHP, U. of Texas. Excellent moving fastball, varied repertoire and a lot of poise.
23. Jedd Gyorko, 3B, U. of West Virginia. Wild card is a Kevin Youkilis type.
24. Caleb Cowart, RHP, INF, Cook County (Ga.) High. Versatile player has good power, strong arm.
25. Alex Wimmers, RHP, Ohio State. Superb curveball to go with a fine record make him solid pick.
Famous names: Cameron Bedrosian (son of former Cy Young winner Steve), Dickie Thon Jr., Delino DeShields, Mel Rojas Jr.
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• People around baseball do expect the Phillies to make a huge effort to extend Jimmy Rollins beyond, 2011, though there's no evidence there's any progress on that front. Meanwhile, his calf injury is taking longer to heal than first believed and now the Phillies are hoping he can be back by the middle of the month, but it may be later than that
• Some are attributing Barry Zito's stark improvement to him making a concerted effort to be rid of distractions, musical and otherwise. Zito is now 4-0 with a 1.53 ERA.
• A healthy Vernon Wells hasn't only turned his game around -- he's batting .330 with 8 home runs and 18 RBIs -- but also he's taken more of a leadership role in the Jays' clubhouse.
• Carlos Zambrano should get credit for accepting his move to the bullpen. If he's upset about it, he hasn't said so. Though a couple of his friends said they don't like the move, and one called it "asinine.'' But Zambrano has pitched well in that role so far -- three games, five hits and one run allowed in four innings -- and Lou Piniella said he could close on occasion if Carlos Marmol isn't available.
• It's very curious that there's been no hint of extension talk between the Cubs and star first baseman Derrek Lee, who can become a free agent at year's end. The Cubs have given out some big free-agent deals, but they should try to take care of their own players when possible. Lee is believed to be interested in staying.
• One of the better under-the-radar trades was the Indians' pickup of starting pitcher MitchTalbot from Tampa Bay for spare catcher Kelly Shoppach. Talbot is off to a 3-1 start with a 2.05 ERA in Cleveland. Meanwhile, the Rays have traded away Jason Hammel and Edwin Jackson in the past two years, as well, and may be the only team that could afford to trade a trio of viable starting pitchers. Their rotation remains one of their many strengths regardless.
• Top Twins catching prospect Wilson Ramos had four hits in his major league debut. He is a superb prospect, and it's believed manager Ron Gardenhire would have liked to have started the season with him in the bigs -- though he understood Twins brass wanting to keep him in the minors so he could catch every day. With star Joe Mauer's heel hurting, this is a good opportunity to see Ramos.
• Jeff Francoeur, after less than a year in New York, already appears to be the Mets' team leader.
• Ryan Madson pulled a dumb move when he broke his right big toe by kicking a metal folding chair in anger. But at least he didn't make up some false story about how it happened, which is what usually occurs. And at least his timing wasn't bad: he went on the disabled list the very day Brad Lidge came off.
• Adrian Gonzalez hit 40 home runs last year and Alex Gonzalez hit eight. But check out their numbers so far this season: 6 HRs, 17 RBIs, .548 slugging percentage for Adrian; 7, 19, .604 for Alex. Hard to believe.
• Rockies youngster Jhoulys Chacin lived up to his billing in beating the Giants Sunday night. Esmil Rogers is yet another big-time prospect. The Rockies keep producing prospects, and with their injuries, it's a good thing. Huston Street is making progress toward a return, an important thing.
• Trevor Hoffman finally got another save. For a while there, a fire alarm could have replaced Hell's Bells as his song after he blew consecutive save chances against the Brewers last week.
• Bobby Cox said Roy Halladay was so good and so precise against the Braves that he could have beaten them throwing only fastballs.
• The Red Sox know they need to turn things around quickly in that division. It's getting late early for them, as Yogi would say.
• The Astros started the year with an eight-game losing streak but briefly fooled a few folks before starting the six-game losing streak they now sport.
• Nice to see the D-Train back on track.