Prospect for the ages: 17-year-old Harper likely top pick
LAS VEGAS – Bryce Harper was called out on strikes and couldn’t believe it. Just to make sure the umpire knew how he felt, he drew a line in the dirt with his bat. The ump promptly tossed him.
That may well have been Harper’s last at-bat in college. But the teenage catcher is clearly on to bigger things, ready to join professional baseball as one of most ballyhooed prospects in the history of the game.
A player for the ages, some say. At only 17.
He’s already hit a 500-foot home run at Tropicana Field. He recently went 6 for 6 with four homers and 10 RBIs in a game to power Southern Nevada to the Junior College World Series.
That’s when he got ejected. No matter – next up, the major league draft starting Monday with the Washington Nationals holding the top choice.
Only one season removed from his sophomore year in high school, Harper is the likely overall No. 1 pick, a spot that launched the careers of Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Joe Mauer and Chipper Jones.
Harper’s stats, after his first season in college: a .443 batting average, 31 home runs, 98 RBIs and 20 stolen bases.
“The draft’s not really on my mind right now or anything, that’s not really what I want to think about,” Harper recently told The Associated Press as his team began its playoff run.
While his former classmates are picking college prep classes, Harper will likely be faced with deciding whether his contract offer has enough millions to keep him from going back to school.
Observers think the Nationals won’t let Harper get past them.
“Their draft board is etched in stone. They’re not going to announce it until draft day, but Harper’s No. 1 on their board,” said Jim Bowden, a former Nationals general manager who now hosts satellite radio shows for MLB Network and Fox Sports.
“This is the best player in this draft,” Bowden said. “There’s no question about that.”
“He’s one of those guys that can change a franchise,” he said.
Bowden said the Nationals are likely to sign Harper, though he thinks Harper’s adviser, Scott Boras, will seek a record contract and push negotiations close to the deadline.
Boras last year negotiated a record-breaking four-year, $15.1 million contract with the Nationals for the No. 1 overall pick, Stephen Strasburg, a college pitcher who is set to make his major league debut Tuesday.
Washington is followed in this draft by the Pirates, Orioles, Royals and Indians, who are expected to choose from top prospects including shortstop Manny Machado of Miami Brito High in Florida, pitcher Jameson Taillon of The Woodlands High School in Texas and Chris Sale, a pitcher from Florida Gulf Coast University.
Harper, who plays catcher, outfield and third base, left high school after two years at age 16 to play for Southern Nevada, a community college in suburban Henderson.
By then, he had already been the subject of a Sports Illustrated cover story that labeled him baseball’s “Chosen One,” echoing the magazine’s sentiments in 2002 about LeBron James – then a high school junior before he went on to star in the NBA. Later that month, Harper became the first non-senior to win Baseball America’s High School Player of the Year.
Last year, Southern Nevada was accustomed to having a few hundred fans in the bleachers. About 1,350 people attended Harper’s first junior college game, mostly scouts and other pro baseball personnel.
Harper’s move, combined with an equivalency test, makes him eligible for the draft one year earlier than he would have been had he stayed in high school. That gives Harper more leverage as he considers whether to sign a big-league contract before the Aug. 16 deadline.
“I have a lot of options. I could come back here and play for CSN again,” Harper said.
Also, Harper says, he could transfer to a Division I school after another junior college year. He likes LSU and Clemson.
“Those are my top two schools and I’d love to go play for them in the College World Series,” Harper said.
Harper’s season at Southern Nevada ended when he was ejected in the fifth inning Wednesday night for protesting a called third strike. It was his second ejection this season, leading to a two-game suspension in the double-elimination series. Minus Harper, CSN lost twice.
His previous ejection came in March after he bowed to the crowd after making a throw from the outfield.
Harper’s maturity has been questioned among baseball followers, including a Baseball Prospectus story in April that said scouts dislike him personally. The report drew strong criticism from CSN coach Tim Chambers, who said Harper is a good person who lives with his parents and babysits the coach’s 2-year-old daughter.
Harper’s father, a 27-year iron worker who has helped weld together several of Las Vegas’ most famous destinations, said he tells his son that all he can control is what’s in his heart and mind.
“I know my kid’s a good kid, and he has a great heart. And that’s all I care about,” Ron Harper said.
Bowden said that there are many veteran scouts who don’t like players who are arrogant at times, talk trash on the field or show immaturity, and perceive those things as indicators of bad makeup.
“That’s just not the case with this kid,” Bowden said.
“The people that have really spent the time to get to know the person, all of them come back and say don’t worry about his makeup,” Bowden said. “May be some maturity issues but don’t worry about the makeup.”
Harper bats left-handed and throws righty. At 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds, the college freshman is old school. He smears eye black across and down his cheeks before he takes the field. He bends down to rub his hands in the dirt near home plate before stepping inside the batter’s box. He doesn’t use batting gloves.
When he hits, balls jump off his bat, driven by his strength and quick bat. A YouTube video of Harper hitting a 502-foot shot at Tampa Bay’s Tropicana Field has been viewed nearly 1 million times. He was 16 when he connected with a metal bat.
Despite giving up some distance, Harper prefers to swing wooden bats.
“I couldn’t ever stand aluminum. It was a lot of fun but you could say it’s a true game because of the fact that it’s wood,” Harper said. “They’re trying to get you out and you’re trying to get a hit. You get sawed off a couple times, and you learn.”
Ron Harper said the decision to send his son to college early was about giving him greater opportunities on and off the field.
“I knew Bryce had to come here to be challenged both academically and in baseball. So be it,” he said. “As a whole, was he going to see this kind of competition every day? No.”
Ron Harper said his son was walked more than 80 times during two high school seasons. At CSN, he homered once every 7.4 at-bats.
Bowden said Harper’s results in a wooden-bat league show he makes contact with the sweet spot of the bat often, and has power for his age seen rarely by scouts.
Chambers said Harper is a long way from where he wants to be as a player, and is prepared to stay an amateur if he doesn’t end up in a situation he wants.
“He’ll know by what pick he goes. That’s how he’ll make his decision because he’s a first-round, first-pick type guy whether it’s this year or next year or the next year,” Chambers said.
“My personal opinion – see you later, he’s gone,” Chambers said. “It’s going to happen.”