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Nationals, Harper look smart with signing, begin slow pro transition


Harper, the 17-year-old power-hitting phenom from the College of Southern Nevada and the Nationals' No. 1 overall pick of the 2010 draft, signed a record deal "seconds before the midnight deadline," Washington general manager Mike Rizzo said.

Harper, the former Sports Illustrated coverboy, won the Golden Spikes Award as the nation's top college player after hitting .443, slamming 31 homers and driving in 98 runs in his one season of junior college baseball. He received a $6.25 million bonus and $9.9 million in guaranteed money on a five-year major-league contract with $2 million roster bonuses in 2014 and '15. The deal eclipsed the previous record for a position player, the $9.5 million Mark Teixeira received in 2001 after the Rangers selected him No. 5 overall out of Georgia Tech. Both players were advised by agent Scott Boras.

"[Harper] gives us another impact player in the system," Rizzo said. "We feel we've really become a deep system with not only good major-league prospects but sprinkling in several impact-type players.

"He could possibly be a cornerstone of our lineup in the very near future."

This was the second straight year the Nationals signed the No. 1 pick just before the midnight deadline after inking Stephen Strasburg to a record $15.1 million deal last year. Washington signed 25 of its top 26 picks, including its second-round and fourth-round picks -- San Diego left-handed pitcher Sammy Solis and Oviedo (Fla.) High right-handed pitcher A.J. Cole -- to contracts in seven figures.

The Nationals were again aggressive in signing top talent in the draft. Their total salary allotment for this year's draft was about $13.7 million. Though that's $1.4 million less than what Strasburg himself earned in 2009, it's still a strong play to horde good young talent in hopes that they all blossom at the major-league level together.

The mood was so jovial at Nationals Park after midnight on Tuesday that team president Stan Kasten slammed a celebratory whipped-cream pie in the face of Rizzo. That's how important signing Harper was to this franchise -- it received the same celebration as the major-league club notching a walk-off win.

As precocious a talent as Harper is, he received roughly $5.2 million less than Strasburg, which says he's nowhere near as close to being major-league ready as Strasburg. That's less a knock on Harper than the reality that a 17-year-old position player phenom is still more raw than a 20-year-old pitching phenom.

Still, Harper had too much to lose not to sign. He had, after all, changed the trajectory of his life in order to build to this day. He left high school after two years to get his G.E.D. so that he could play this past year in junior college and become draft eligible in 2010. The new plan worked to perfection, as Harper led the College of Southern Nevada to the Junior College World Series, and the Nationals selected him first in the draft. To return to school now would have been failure.

For the top picks, there was too much to risk by not signing. The 2011 draft is expected to have more elite prospects than there were this year, which could push prospects farther down in the first round. And perhaps even more important is that baseball's labor agreement will have expired before next year's draft and could be renegotiated to implement a stricter slotting system to limit exorbitant bonuses.

Why risk injury in another season of amateur baseball only to get a smaller bonus a year later?

The Nationals, on the other hand, had little reason not to extend a precedent-setting contract offer to Harper for several reasons. One, if all scouts and reports are to be believed, he truly could be a prodigy worth the risk.

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Two, the franchise hasn't contended for years, so it was worth a game-changing gamble on an impact player; even if, say, they overpaid by $1 million, where else would that money go? To another journeyman reliever and roster-filler like Miguel Batista?

Three, such a contract may invoke a scolding from Major League Baseball for exceeding the recommended slot but, given the shaky ground the whole system is standing on, who cares? Slotting is expected to get an overhaul before the next draft.

On Sunday came a challenge. The man who most closely understands what Harper went through the past few days and months is Strasburg, who called out his would-be teammate.

"If [Harper] wants to play here, he's going to play here," Strasburg said. "He doesn't need advice from anybody to convince him otherwise. If he doesn't want to play here, then we don't want him here."

The words were pointed and plain, and Harper heeded the call. So now what? That he received a major-league deal indicates the Nationals expect a rapid rise to the big leagues.

"We do feel he's a fast-track 17-year-old player," Rizzo said. "The fact that he handles the work so well and that he's so experienced with the wooden bat the whole season helped us with our evaluation of him. It speaks to how hard he's worked over the season and how ready we feel he is for professional baseball."

But it won't come overnight or even as quickly as Strasburg made the jump from draft to majors in 12 months. There isn't much precedent for a high school slugger taken No. 1 overall, but the one obvious recent example -- Justin Upton of the Diamondbacks -- ought to be a reasonable guide for Harper's timeline to the majors.

Upton was two months older than Harper when he was drafted No. 1 overall in June 2005 and was handed a $6.1 million signing bonus, though his came with a minor-league contract. Upton played all of his first pro season in Class A, then split most of his second year between high A and Double A before making his major-league debut in August 2007 at 19, three weeks before his 20th birthday and 26 months after being drafted.

In Harper's case, the rookie-ball Gulf Coast League Nationals only have 10 games left this season, but Harper can spend the next two weeks working at the Nationals camp in Florida to get him ready for September's instructional league, where he can play to get his feet wet. Then he can play against the higher competition of the Arizona Fall League in November, a scenario that Rizzo conceded was an "outside possibility" shortly after signing him. An occasional humbling experience may be good for Harper.

Invite him to big-league camp so he can see the professionalism of the veteran Nationals -- most especially, Ivan Rodriguez and Ryan Zimmerman -- but relegate him to Class A ball. He may already be better than the competition there, and it's not like Harper will need the confidence boost of playing well at that level, but what it will be do is temper some of the burdensome expectations.

If the Nationals start Harper any higher, they'll be doing him a disservice. Such an accelerated timetable will get him -- and fans -- thinking he could play in a major-league game in 2011. That's nonsense. Washington likely won't be contending that season anyway, so give him a year of seasoning in the minors, with a promotion to high Class A or Double A midway through the year.

Let him start 2012 in Double A, and if he's really the prodigy he's expected to be, maybe consider calling him up in June of that season -- after the point he'll no longer be a Super 2 -- but not any sooner.

The Nationals continue to be smart in centering their rebuilding process on the draft. And Harper, having clearly outgrown amateur baseball, was smart in starting his professional career.