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Nats infuse more hope for future by selecting phenom Harper No. 1

Even those involved seemed to appreciate the historic moment of not just drafting "one-one" for the second straight year but -- along with 2009's top pick, starter Stephen Strasburg, who is set to make his major-league debut tomorrow -- of selecting a pair of rare talents who were such well-hyped, well-known commodities as amateurs.

"I cannot remember back-to-back years when there's been two players who have separated themselves from the rest of the field," Rizzo said.

And so the Nationals didn't screw up day one of the two most important days the franchise has had since moving to Washington in 2005. No matter what record bonus agent Scott Boras might demand, the Nationals had to draft the power-hitting phenom Harper, the catcher-outfielder from the College of Southern Nevada.

Harper provides continued hope to Nationals fans as the next big thing, exactly 24 hours before the anticipation of Strasburg's unveiling comes to a crescendo with his Tuesday start.

The two events, though, couldn't be more different: Monday's draft pick press conference was held in the luxury restaurant underneath an otherwise barren Nationals Park, which will be packed with an overflow crowd for Tuesday's game. Of course, with the Nationals drawing roughly half-capacity each night (51.5 percent), the sea of empty blue seats on Monday about as closely resembled the daily scene in Washington as will Tuesday's soldout affair, when Strasburg actually gets to demonstrate his talents before a live audience of Nationals fans.

No individual -- or, in this case, two individuals -- can singlehandedly reverse a franchise's fortunes. For that there was a visual reminder in the form of the Nationals' draft board hanging on the war room's front wall. Washington will need some of the players represented on the scattered rectangular green, red, yellow and white namecards to become the future major-league teammates of Harper and Strasburg. But they will have their day tomorrow, when the draft resumes with round two.

This was Harper's day and the long-awaited formal coronation of his potential.

The precocious 17-year-old slugger graced Sports Illustrated's cover as a high school sophomore and famously earned his G.E.D. in order to skip his final two years of high school and play junior college ball, where, incidentally, he demolished opposing pitchers with a .442 average, 29 home runs and 89 RBIs in 62 games.

That kind of production, along with single-game exploits such as his 6-for-6, four-home run performance in the conference championship, have enhanced a growing legend around the phenom, including a recent series of Chuck Norris-like facts, including "Bryce Harper hit a bases-empty grand slam" and "When steroids want to hit more home runs, they take Bryce Harper."

It was, of course, a no brainer that Rizzo admitted was essentially finalized a month ago despite the sarcastic quip from team president Stan Kasten who, when asked what was new, he replied, "Not much. I'm just eagerly awaiting the press conference and seeing how Rizzo explains this one."

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But Nationals fans shouldn't expect Harper to make the same meteoric, single-year rise to the majors as Strasburg. Though Rizzo said immediately that Harper would move fulltime to the outfield to eliminate the rigors of catching and thereby "accelerate his development in the minor leagues and extend his career in the major leagues," Harper is 17 and doesn't have the seasoning Strasburg gained at San Diego State. Only three teenage position players have made their debuts this decade -- B.J. Upton, Justin Upton and Wilson Betemit, each of whom did so as 19 year olds and none played more than 45 games.

Harper's best bet to ascend quickly is to sign quickly, particularly because Rizzo said he'd go to the lowest level of the minors, the Gulf Coast League, to start his baseball progress.

"We're certainly not going to rush him," Rizzo said.

That is no guarantee, of course, with Boras as his representative. Boras is a notorious deadline negotiator, so Harper may not sign until Aug. 15, particularly given the high stakes. Strasburg agreed to a contract only minutes before last year's deadline, and he netted a record $15.1 million; Harper is expected to get more. As an early negotiating tactic, Rizzo noted that Harper "does not enjoy idle time." This could be his first summer not playing competitively if he waits until the end of the year, which also could further a reported sentiment that he is coddled and arrogant.

Thus, it would also behoove Harper to take the field soon to show that he is ready to handle the hype with humility and professionalism. Whether founded or not, the past two months have seen several stories questioning Harper's character. One unnamed front-office official telling Baseball Prospectus that "He's just a bad, bad guy. He's basically the anti-Joe Mauer." An ejection from a junior college playoff game -- and the subsequent suspension that ended his season -- certainly didn't help.

The Nationals refuted such worries, as Rizzo assured the media that the club knows Harper as well as any team can know any amateur.

"There are no concerns about this player's makeup," said Rizzo, even acknowledging, however, that Harper "acts like a 17 year old at times."

Except with a bat in his hands. Washington's scouting director Kris Kline, who has attended about 20 of Harper's games, said the player's approach at the plate was very advanced for his age, noting his ability to keep the bat through the strike zone on each swing, his great vision in seeing each pitch and his knack for driving the ball to the opposite field. Based on Harper's position and power stroke, Kline likened him to All-Stars J.D. Drew and Larry Walker.

"I think we feel that this is the only bat in this draft that has the potential to be a three-hole hitter," Kline said, "and of course hitting from the left side only adds value."

The repeated visits of the Nationals' executives to watch Harper play in Las Vegas built enough confidence that Rizzo admitted that the pick had been essentially finalized about a month ago.

And so on this day in the waning moments before commissioner Bud Selig formally announced the pick, there was no work left for the club's officials to do in the war room. A few papers were shuffled, some light conversation filled the void and a camera was drawn to better remember the week the Nationals' future came together.