Washington Nationals select Bryce Harper with first pick in MLB draft

By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 8, 2010; D04

The men who run the Washington Nationals sat at a conference table inside Nationals Park on Monday night, watching Commissioner Bud Selig announce on television what they all knew and what everyone else watching assumed. Bunting hung from the ceiling. Owner Mark Lerner stood in one corner of the room; a cooler of Red Bull and a pile of snacks -- bananas, Snickers bars, cookies -- rested in another.

General Manager Mike Rizzo made his career as a scouting director, a draft expert. He watched Bryce Harper play for only one weekend, the first in May. He had not read any of the Nationals scouting reports; he wanted "a clear mind." On the flight back to Washington from Las Vegas, Rizzo knew.

"It was," Rizzo said, "a pretty easy decision."

The Nationals, one month after that trip, selected 17-year-old Harper, a power-hitting phenom from the College of Southern Nevada, with the first overall pick in baseball's First-Year Player Draft. On the night before last year's first overall pick will make his ravenously anticipated major league debut, the Nationals drafted Harper and announced he will play outfield and not catcher, the position he has played most of his life.

The Nationals became the first team to choose first overall in consecutive years -- until 2006, the first pick alternated between the teams with the worst records in each league. The Nationals, losers of 205 games over the past two seasons, not only picked first twice in a row, they picked Stephen Strasburg and Harper, two players widely regarded as possessing once-in-a-lifetime raw talent.

The focus now will shift to the process of Harper officially becoming a National. He is a client of super-agent Scott Boras, who is notorious for protracted negotiations that brush up against the deadline for draftees to sign, which this year is Aug. 15. Harper will almost certainly exceed the record contract for a position player, still Mark Teixeira's $9.5 million in 2001.

Rizzo is optimistic the negotiation will not be an ordeal. The Nationals, of course, have recent experience with such a negotiation. Last August, they struck a record $15.1 million deal with Strasburg, another Boras client, minutes before the midnight deadline.

"We have hopes of getting him out and playing before Aug. 15," Rizzo said. "We're going to put our best effort forward. We know that we have a player who wants to play. We've got a representative that we've dealt with successfully in the past. We're going to give our best effort on all sides."

"I know that he loves to play baseball," said Tim Chambers, Harper's coach at the College of Southern Nevada. "I expect him to sign."

Before he does anything, Harper will rest for a few weeks. "I know that he's tired right now," Chambers said.

When Harper signs, the Nationals will have already made one decision -- whether Harper plays catcher or outfielder. "Bryce doesn't care," Chambers said. The Nationals believe Harper playing the outfield will "accelerate his development in the minor leagues and extend his career in the major leagues," Rizzo said.

Harper primarily played catcher for most of his life, but he also played right field this year at CSN. Moving to the outfield will save Harper from the corrosion of catching and force him to the bench fewer games. It would also expedite his arrival in the majors, given the high demands of learning how to catch in the major leagues.

Harper's ascension has become ingrained in baseball circles: Blasted a 502-foot home run off the back wall of Tropicana Field; anointed as "Baseball's Chosen One" on the cover of Sports Illustrated; skipped his junior year at Las Vegas High School, earned a G.E.D. and enrolled at the College of Southern Nevada so he could hit using wood bats against junior college pitching.

Nationals amateur scouting director Kris Kline said Harper reminded him of former Colorado Rockies outfielder Larry Walker, who hit .313, made five all-star teams and won seven Gold Gloves in a 16-year career. Nationals vice president of player personnel Roy Clark first watched Harper as a 15-year-old in an elite amateur tournament outside Atlanta. "My first thought was, 'Oh, my gosh, who is this kid?' " Clark said.

The hype could be suffocating at times, but Harper still produced unreal statistics in his lone college season. Competing against older players, Harper hit .442 with a .986 slugging percentage and a .524 on-base percentage and hit 29 home runs. The old school record, achieved with a metal bat, was 12.

"He doesn't really get caught up in it," Chambers said. "He's excited. I don't think he can go through any more than he went through this year. He's matured a whole bunch. He learned how to deal with failure. Watching him for a whole year, to go from what he was to what he is now, was just great. He's ready."

Harper faced questions about his attitude and on-field behavior. He was ejected from his final college game ("a farce," Chambers said), and one anonymous scout, in a Baseball Prospectus article, called Harper "just a bad guy."

Kline called the article "gutless" and raved about Harper's demeanor and family. "He's a great kid," Kline said. While Rizzo will ban Harper's trademark eye black-turned-war paint, he defended Harper.

"There are no concerns about this player's makeup," Rizzo said. "We are sold on him, his family, the character of the player. He acts like a 17-year-old at times. I don't want to tell you what I did when I was 17."

By picking Harper Monday and pitching Strasburg Tuesday, the Nationals have created unprecedented attention around the franchise. They would like more of that, but for an entirely different reason.

"From this point forward, we would like to pick 30th every year," Clark said. "And not 1."

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