The Nationals, who own the first pick for the second straight draft, are positioned for franchise-turning back-to-back days next week. On Monday they are expected to draft Harper. On Tuesday they will give the ball to Stephen Strasburg for his major-league debut. Strasburg, a right-handed pitcher and the team's No. 1 pick last year, is 21 years old.
"The greatest commodity in the game is power," says agent Scott Boras, who represents both players. "Power arms and power hitters."
Suddenly the Nats are loaded with excitement, a tremendous turnaround for the least-watched team in baseball last year (their home telecasts attracted only about 12,000 households). Of course, the Nationals still will have to sign Harper -- this after handing over a record $15.1 million package to Strasburg last year.
Harper does figure to sign at some point. He is a baseball rat who needs to be playing, for one. For another, he figures to have no better leverage if he goes into the draft again next year -- he can't improve on being the first overall pick, he loses millions by deferring his major league service another year, and he may be faced with less bargaining power next year.
MLB is bound and determined to include some form of a slotting system for draft bonuses in the next Collective Bargaining Agreement. Those changes, if they can be successfully negotiated with the union, would go into place for the 2012 draft. That would leave 2011 as the last chance to break the bank on bonus money, which means that high picks such as Harper would be under pressure to sign in 2011 before the changes go into effect.
After all the complaining that the kid should have stayed in high school, Harper seems to have done just fine with the plan Boras mapped out for him about three years ago: leave high school after sophomore year, obtain a General Equivalency Degree, enroll in junior college and become eligible for the draft in what otherwise would have been his junior year in high school.
Boras says he told Harper a few years ago, "This is the only way I can get you to be understood."
Had Harper remained in high school, he would have been bored by rarely getting any pitches to hit, and his skills might have gone underappreciated by pro scouts. They could have questioned his competition and wondered if he could hit with a wood bat.
Instead, Harper has played against older, Division I-quality junior college players in a conference that uses wood bats -- and he has torn up the league. Harper has hit 29 home runs -- obliterating the previous school record of 12. While attending the College of Southern Nevada, he lives at home with mom and dad and is teammates with his older brother, Bryan, a pitcher who is 11-1 and currently playing in the Junior College World Series in Grand Junction, Colo.
How good is Harper? After hitting with Harper this winter, Shane Victorino told me, "I wish I had bat speed like that. It's at the top of major league bat speed."
At the Junior College World Series, CSN is 2-0 (outscoring opponents 31-6) while Harper is 3 for 6 with three walks and six runs scored in two games entering a third on Tuesday night. One major league GM told me that Harper will be a consistent "35-home run guy" in the big leagues. Think Ryan Howard -- except with the athleticism to make it to the big leagues as a catcher, outfielder or third baseman.
To get to the World Series, Harper added to his legend with a game against Central Arizona in which he went 6 for 6 -- four homers, a double and a triple. True, the wind was blowing out and CSN had switched to metal bats for the playoffs, but Harper's power is unmistakable.
"Watching him take BP with a wood bat is something else," says Central Arizona coach Jon Wente. "When he hits, there is a different sound of the bat hitting the ball. It's like Albert Pujols. It's a different sound from everybody else."
Says Wente, "We had Ian Kinsler here, and he was a good player, but he believed he was a really good player. You can tell Harper is the same way. He has a different approach and he truly believes he is one of the best."
There is no doubt about Harper's confidence. His critics, the pedestal-toppling crowd, likes to bash him as a kid with poor "character" and "makeup" issues. After all, they like to point out, he was thrown out of a game for taunting the opponents. The kid was on the cover of SI at 16, hit a ball in high school that went 570 feet and for years has been groomed by Boras -- and former big leaguer Kurt Stillwell, who works for Boras -- to be the top pick of the draft. Don't think he hasn't heard the catcalls and "overrated" comments from opposing dugouts and stands.
"Coach [Tim] Chambers did a great job maturing him into a better player and how to handle situations," Wente says of the CSN coach. "He improved so much by the end of the year. The first time we played them he had some of that [attitude]. By this last time we played him, he was very different. He handled things in the right way."
Harper is looking at four years of minor league ball if he catches, and perhaps half of that if he plays the outfield. Boras doesn't want him catching. "No baseball person in his right mind will have the guy catch," says Boras, who believes that catching puts a valuable hitter at too great a risk of wear and tear.
And what about the money? Well, Harper probably won't break Strasburg's record. Strasburg was considered closer to the majors, and if they had happened to be in the same draft, Strasburg would have gone first. Plus, three of the four greatest signing packages in history went to major college pitchers who were close to the big leagues (Strasburg, Mark Prior and David Price). But Harper could smash the record for a position player -- $9.5 million, which has stood for nine years since Boras negotiated the deal for Mark Teixeira.
Sure, there is plenty of hype associated with Harper. As one GM says, "The players at the top of the draft are getting so much media attention now, I think clubs might feel like they have to take a certain player just because of the spotlight on a certain guy. But I don't think that's the case this time."
Strasburg was far and away the best player available last year, a true no-brainer for the Nationals. Harper may not be that far ahead of the field, if only because he is just 17. But his combination of light-tower power and athleticism come along very rarely -- too rarely for the Nationals to let slip by.