A powerful argument for signing Bryce Harper

The next sure thing in the baseball draft will be the first.

There is, however, a sure-enough thing.

As the Washington Nationals return with agent Scott Boras into the draft-deadline octagon, the Lerner family and GM Mike Rizzo will negotiate for one of the draft’s most consistent payoffs: The high school one-one with power.

Bryce Harper warms up before a college baseball game in Henderson, Nev.
(AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)
Powerful One-Ones

Eight players with plus power have been drafted with the first pick of the first round in the last 25 years. All of them became established major leaguers.

Name Year
drafted
Age 1st
full season
HRs 1st
full season
Career
HRs
Ken Griffey Jr. 1987 19 16 630
Chipper Jones 1990 22 23 436
Alex Rodriguez 1993 22 36 603
Josh Hamilton 1999 25 19 87
Adrian Gonzalez 2000 23 24 159
Joe Mauer 2001 21 9 79
Delmon Young 2003 21 13 52
Justin Upton 2005 20 15 59

Beginning nearly a quarter-century ago, eight prep position players have been chosen with the first pick in the first round due in large part to their big league home-run potential: Ken Griffey Jr.(notes), Chipper Jones(notes), Alex Rodriguez(notes), Josh Hamilton(notes), Adrian Gonzalez(notes), Joe Mauer(notes), Delmon Young(notes) and Justin Upton(notes). (Other high schoolers have been chosen first, but not necessarily with power as a plus tool.)

The ninth, on a technicality, is a 17-year-old who played junior college ball last season but whose high school class is entering its senior year.

He is Bryce Harper.

‘’It is,” Boras said hours before Monday’s midnight ET deadline, “the greatest percentage play in the scouting system.”

That would be slightly greater, then, than the polished college power pitcher who throws, say, a hundred miles an hour.

The Nationals drew Stephen Strasburg(notes) last summer, signed him for $15.1 million over four years, and made their money back – maybe a couple times over – through 11 starts. Though Strasburg had pitched fewer than 50 big league innings at the time, SportsBusiness Daily last month named him the fourth-most marketable Major League player and the leader among those not yet 25 years old. Fifth on the latter list, on a technicality, is a 17-year-old who is not currently in Major League baseball or, for that matter, a professional of any kind.

He is Harper.

Those one-one power bats, in whose company Harper stands since the Nationals drafted him in June, did have big senior seasons. Rodriguez hit nine home runs at Miami Westminster Christian High, for instance. Upton hit 12. Griffey hit seven. Gonzalez and Hamilton each hit 13. Aluminum bats are a wonder, particularly against high school pitchers.

Harper, in a wood-bat junior college league, hit 31 homers in about twice as many games as a typlprep season. In their freshman college seasons, Barry Bonds hit 18 home runs at Arizona State, Rafael Palmeiro hit 18 at Mississippi State and Mark Teixeira(notes) hit 13 at Georgia Tech. The competition was better. The bats were aluminum.

It is one thing to make the percentage play, another to pay for it, which is where the Nationals find themselves for the second time in a year. Strasburg’s contract was a record for a drafted player. Teixeira’s contract after being drafted fifth overall in 2001 by the Texas Rangers ultimately was worth $11 million, the record for a position player.

The conversation now, between the Nationals and Harper’s advisor, Boras, is where Harper fits. Strasburg was major league ready, as it turned out, and was the face of the Nationals before he was in the major leagues. Teixeira played one season in the minor leagues. Harper won’t be 18 until October, but he would appear to be as physically and emotionally equipped as Upton, who was drafted at 17, debuted in the big leagues at 19 and was an All-Star at 21. At this age, Harper has the power of Griffey, who was drafted at 17, debuted at 19, and was an All-Star at 20.

An argument that a college player – such as Teixeira – might be worth more at signing than the majority of the high school one-ones seems without merit. Yet, the perception remains that the 21-year-old with big-time college experience is necessarily more prepared, and therefore worth more on draft day, than the extraordinarily talented prep player.

“When you can do something in sports when you’re younger,” Boras said, “the fact of you doing it longer makes you that much more valuable.”

Of the first 46 players chosen (the first round, plus supplemental picks, consisted of 50 draftees), eight are advised by Boras. Christian Colon, the Cal State Fullerton shortstop likely over-drafted in the fourth position by the Kansas City Royals, signed for $2.75 million in late June and Arizona State right-hander Seth Blair (46th overall) has signed with the St. Louis Cardinals. That leaves Harper, along with prep shortstop Manny Machado (third, Baltimore Orioles), North Carolina right-hander Matt Harvey (seventh, New York Mets), Cal State Fullerton outfielder Gary Brown (24th, San Francisco Giants) and LSU right-hander Anthony Ranaudo (39th, Boston Red Sox). In total, nearly half – 23 – of the top 50 remain unsigned.

Should Harper and the Nationals not come to terms, Harper could return to College of Southern Nevada or play part of next season in an independent league, then re-enter the draft. The Nationals would be compensated with the second overall pick.

Most speculation has Harper agreeing to a contract in the neighborhood of Teixeira’s by the deadline. A year ago, Strasburg and the Nationals shook hands – figuratively – with slightly more than a minute remaining. Asked recently by the Washington Post about Harper and the negotiations, Strasburg was something less than compassionate.

“I don’t have any advice for him,” he said. “It’s his decision. If he wants to play here, he’s going to play here. He doesn’t need advice from anyone to confirm his views. If he doesn’t want to play here, then we don’t want him here. That’s the bottom line.”

That’s from one one-one to another.