One day before pitching prospect Stephen Strasburg debuts for the Washington Nationals, the team might welcome another equally hyped player aiming for a record- breaking contract.
Washington probably will make 17-year-old catcher Bryce Harper the No. 1 selection in Major League Baseball’s first-year player draft tonight. He may also be the youngest pick since the draft started in 1965.
Harper, who hits 500-foot home runs and covers his entire cheeks with glare-reducing eyeblack paste during games, may get a guaranteed contract of more than $10 million, breaking the record for a non-pitcher of $9.5 million that the Texas Rangers paid Mark Teixeira in 2001, according to Jim Callis, who has studied baseball prospects for 20 years. Strasburg signed for an overall record $15.1 million last year, according to MLB.com.
“He’s clearly the best player in this draft and clearly the best power-hitting prospect I can ever remember,” Callis, the executive editor of Baseball America, said in a telephone interview.
The Nationals won’t be commenting on whom they plan to select, spokesman John Dever said in a telephone interview.
The Nationals had baseball’s worst record each of the past two seasons, earning the first selection the following years thanks to the 2005 elimination of a rule that alternated the pick between leagues. Washington drafted Strasburg No. 1 in 2009, also taking pitcher Drew Storen, who’s already reached the majors. Strasburg debuts tomorrow night against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Nationals Park after going 7-2 with a 1.30 earned run average in the minor leagues.
The only other team to draft consecutive No. 1 picks was the Tampa Bay Rays, taking pitcher David Price in 2007 and shortstop Tim Beckham in 2008. The Rays made the World Series in 2008 a year after posting baseball’s worst record, and have the best record this season, a pattern that the Nationals may follow, Callis said.
“If you can add in back-to-back years theoretically the best pitching prospect anybody’s ever seen in the draft, and the best power prospect anybody’s seen in the draft -- and oh by the way, we’ll throw in Drew Storen, who looks like he’s going to be our closer for awhile -- those are three pretty impressive cornerstones,” he said. “That will get them close to contention.”
A year ago as a high-school sophomore in Las Vegas, Harper was on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine next to the headline “Baseball’s Chosen One.” He earned a high-school equivalency diploma in December so he could face stiffer competition, entered junior college at the College of Southern Nevada and hit 31 home runs, mostly using a wooden bat.
Six for Six
Playing in the National Junior College Athletic Association, the team switched to aluminum bats for postseason play to match squads outside its division and clinched the Western District title on May 22. Harper went 6-for-6 with four home runs, a triple, a double and 10 runs batted in, one day after hitting for the cycle.
Harper was ejected from games twice this season, including last week during the Junior College World Series after taking a called third strike, when he appeared to draw a line in the dirt to show the umpire how far outside the pitch was. The ejection earned him a two-game suspension and his team was eliminated the next day.
“He’s not a bad kid; he’s a hard worker,” Callis said. “He’s a 17-year-old kid who’s immature like a lot of 17-year- olds.”
Harper turns 18 in October and Callis said he may be the youngest pick ever in the draft that is limited to players from the U.S. or Canada. Mike Teevan, a major-league spokesman, said in an e-mail that baseball didn’t know who was the youngest draftee among 57,373 players selected since its inception 45 years ago.
Still a Catcher?
What position he’ll play as a pro and how costly it will be to sign him are two questions about Harper. His size (6-foot-3, 205 pounds) and the difficulty of teaching catchers defensive skills may mean a move to the outfield, Callis said.
“The bat is going to be too tempting for them to wait on him to develop as a catcher,” Callis said.
Former major-leaguer Harold Reynolds, an analyst for the MLB Network, said outfield is the wrong position for Harper. The network will air the first night of the three-day draft at 7 p.m. New York time.
“This kid is one of the best catchers I’ve seen,” Reynolds said in a telephone interview. “I think it’d be a huge mistake to move him from behind the plate. He can throw, he’s got great mechanics, he blocks and he’s been calling games since he was 11 years old.”
Agent Scott Boras, who represents both Harper and Strasburg, told SI.com last week that “no baseball person in his right mind will have the guy catch,” because the risk of breakdown from the physical demands of the position will diminish Harper’s value as a hitter.
Callis said the Nationals probably will offer between $10 million and $12 million, topping Teixeira’s $9.5 million record.
“You never know, but I don’t think he gets as much as Strasburg,” he said.
While Harper would add another big-ticket youngster to the Nationals, the team must draft well when the choices aren’t so easy if they hope to match the Rays’ turnaround, Reynolds said.
“I can scout Strasburg or Bryce Harper,” Reynolds said. “It’s the guy who’s in that 10th round that makes the big difference.”