Monday, June 7, 2010

Exciting day, but long wait ahead

Somewhere around 7:05 p.m. tonight, the Nationals will select College of Southern Nevada catcher Bryce Harper as the first player taken in this year's draft. We'll immediately see clips of the 17-year-old blasting home runs, intimidating opponents with his warrior-paint eye black and getting ejected by an umpire for literally drawing a line in the sand during the Junior College World Series last week.

Like Stephen Strasburg one year ago, Harper's life is about to change. He's already as well-known as any No. 1 pick in baseball draft history, no small accomplishment considering how hyped Strasburg was last summer. Strasburg, of course, has yet to appear as the cover photo on Sports Illustrated. Harper has.

This is an exciting time for the Nationals and for Nats fans. To see Harper get drafted on Monday and Strasburg make his big-league debut on Tuesday? What a convergence of events.

Unfortunately, I'm here to douse the fire just a little bit. Because tonight's event is only the first step in what will be a very long process to get Harper to the major leagues. If you thought the 12-month wait for Strasburg was tough, you better be prepared to buckle up for a 3- or 4-year journey with Harper.

Before we can even consider when he'll reach the majors, Harper must first actually sign with the Nationals. We've gone through this process before. Strasburg (or more precisely, agent Scott Boras) made everyone wait until the final 90 seconds before last August's deadline to sign, and there's no reason to believe that timeline will be any different with Harper. The kid can say all he wants about his desire to play baseball. As long as Boras is calling the shots, this thing will go down to the wire.

Is there a chance Harper won't sign at all? Yes, but it's very slim. There's not a lot of motivation for him to turn down what surely will be a large contract offer from the Nationals, though probably not as large as the one Strasburg got. (It's tough to see a 17-year-old getting a guaranteed, major-league deal. It's more likely he'll get a big-time signing bonus but settle for a minor-league contract.) Harper certainly has leverage in that he can threaten to go back to school next year. But as several knowledgeable people have pointed out to me in the last couple months: You don't get your GED at 16 and enroll in a junior college conference that plays with wood bats just so you can hold out and go back to school for another season. You did this because you want to reach the big leagues as quickly as you possibly can.

So there's every reason to believe Harper will ultimately sign with the Nationals before midnight on Aug. 16. Just don't expect it to happen any earlier than that.

Once he's signed, Harper's trek to the majors will be a slow one. High school players -- and let's be honest, that's what he is; he should have been a high school junior this season -- don't reach the big leagues in one year. Generally speaking, neither do college players. Strasburg was an extreme case.

Assuming Harper signs in mid-August, look for him to do like Strasburg did and report to Viera to work out with the organization's rookie Gulf Coast League team with all the other 2010 draft picks who sign. He will probably open the 2011 season at low-Class A Hagerstown, perhaps getting bumped up to high-Class A Potomac in midseason.

You can do the math from there. 2012: Class AA Harrisburg. 2013: Class AAA Syracuse, then Washington in June, avoiding Super 2 status. Even that would be considered a fast track to the big leagues for someone of Harper's age. It's quite possible, maybe even likely, that he won't reach the big leagues until 2014 or 2015.

You've got to remember: This is a 17-year-old kid. He won't turn 18 until October. He was born two weeks before Bill Clinton was elected president. He wasn't alive the last time the Redskins won the Super Bowl. He was 8 years old on 9/11. When Livan Hernandez threw the first pitch at RFK Stadium in 2005, Bryce Harper was 12.

None of this is meant to dampen your excitement over the next 48 hours, because this truly is a unique couple of days for any baseball organization. The Nationals are at the center of the baseball world right now, and everyone should soak up this experience for all it's worth.

Just understand that, as has so often been the case with this franchise, patience will once again be a virtue.


nats rising said...


Here's a curiosity question regarding last year's draft. Mike Leake of the Reds came right out of college, made the opening day big league roster and has been extremely effective so far this year. If he had been available when the National's 10th pick came up, I am wondering if they would have selected him over Storen?

Anonymous said...

Back to back clear number one picks is very unusual. For a team to get both of those picks is unbelievable. I am not trying to Harper on the subject but this should take them into another Strasburgphere.

jcj5y said...

I know you're right that Boras is very, very likely to wait until the deadline to sign, but I'm trying to imagine a scenario where Harper doesn't do that. Here it is: As you say, you don't go to JuCo as a 17 year-old if you're a patient person. Maybe Harper and his family say to Boras, "Bryce's top priority is to get to the majors as fast as possible. Everything else is secondary. You've already done something unprecedented with our son, putting him in the position to go 1-1 at age 17. If we wait until August, he spends all of 2011 in A ball. If we sign quickly, he can tear up low A, and maybe even play some high A, in 2010. Then he's in AA and AAA in 2011, maybe he starts at AAA in 2012, and he can reach the majors later that season."

I know that's far-fetched given what we know about Boras and the draft. But we also know that Boras makes far more money in free agency, so perhaps it's in his interest to have Harper sign early too, whereas with Strasburg he wasn't worried about waiting because he knew the innings limits would hold him back regardless. The point is, I don't think Boras waits to sign just for the sake of waiting. He's trying to maximize his profits. This may be the unusual case where waiting will actually cost him money.

Anonymous said...

1) Strasburg is not an extreme case, Mike Leake is an extreme case skipping the minors entirely!

2) A big factor as to why high schoolers do not reach the majors quickly is they are still growing, Harper in reality has 4 more growing years where he could get taller and his body will fill out more, which in my opinion is why he is a corner OF prospect more than a catching prospect.

3) I agree 3 years would be the fast track for him, so buy your Bryce Harper flex plan for June 2013!

4) Given that the excitement of today will not be the excitement of tomorrow for a while, can you give us a read on some of the other players (perhaps college tested guys) who we could see at Nats Park before the 2nd coming of the 2nd coming!?

bdrube said...

I'm with jc on this one. It makes more sense all around to get him signed sooner rather than later. If he develops into a great player by age 19 like Ken Griffey Jr. did the Nats would be silly not get him on the field with Strasburg and Zimmerman as soon as possible.

I'm not saying it WILL happen, but there seems a better chance than with Strasburg that it MIGHT.

Kevin Rusch, Section406 said...

I'm with bdrube on this one. I know it's silly to assume he's the next Junior Griffey, but if he's that good, there's no sense in keeping him on the farm because "that's what you do."

And I also think he'll sign fast. He doesn't work for Boras, remember. Strasburg had enough miles on his arm in 2009 and lost nothing by waiting. And the sooner he signs, ultimately, the sooner he hits free agency.

So start him in Hagerstown and see how he handles buses. Then to Potomac and see how he handles real fastballs and slumps. Then Harrisburg and curveballs. Make a decision on catcher/RF along the way. Let the timing work itself out.

court said...

Even if Harper/Boras come to an agreement quickly, I've heard that MLB may not approve the deal until the deadline so that his big bonus doesn't lead to a domino effect of larger-than-usual bonuses for the guys behind him.

Mark, have you heard anything along those lines?

Anonymous said...

A bit off topic to say the least but I believe Teddy will win the President's Race on Tuesday ushering in a new era of Nats baseball to the nation's capital! What are the odds on this one Mark???

Steve M. said...

Kevin Rusch, Section406 said...

And I also think he'll sign fast. He doesn't work for Boras, remember.

Kevin, what did you eat for breakfast? Must have been something in your cornflakes. This kid and his family will follow the Boras playbook which is signing right before midnight on Augutst 17th.

Now back to reality. My only trepidation with this kid is PED's, attitude, and Bora$$, and people, those are 3 serious things to be concerned about.

It's all good now and then it will be a carbon copy bash and whine session a week before August 17th just like last year with Strasburg. The message boards will be overrun with negativity and the media will be revved up.

I read that story about Aaron Crow on National News Daily and recall all the bad feelings that brewed in NatsTown over his failure to sign, and after reading that article you have to wonder what that kids future is, maybe the bullpen? Its funny how things work out.

Enjoy the Draft!

Anonymous said...

@nats rising: Mike Leake went 8th in the draft last year.

Why, exactly, is there a three-four year timeline on Harper? This is something I simply DO NOT understand. Harper dominated a very good Juco conference, and took his team to the semi-finals of the NJCAA tournament (where they blew a two-run lead in the bottom of the ninth without him).

Even if he waits until August 17th to sign and misses the entire season (which I doubt will happen), he will be in A ball at 18.

If he's as good as everybody says he is, why wouldn't he be up in mid 2012 at age 19?

Traveler8 said...

Agree, the story on Nationals Daily News re Crow was good and deserves a look. For me a major take-away of the Crow story is the contrast to the Strasburg signing - maybe it was 18 minutes before the deadline, but he did sign - and I think that means that Boras gets the deal done, if the client wants to sign it will happen. I think Crow's representation was bad, and that was a lot of his problem, now to his regret. This all bodes well for Harper signing.

Section 222 said...

The biggest difference between Harper and Strasburg, as a jcj alluded to is that Strasburg is a pitcher, and his development has to be much more closely monitored. If Harper is tearing the cover off the ball in Double A, he'll be brought up quick. If he's still growing, all the better. If I were him, and Boras, I'd be thinking that holding out until the deadline in August to get a few extra million this summer might not be worth the extra year he might have to wait to qualify for arbitration and free agency when really big bucks await him. Are there any recent examples of Boras-represented high profile position players waiting until August to sign?

jcj5y said...

One other factor is in play here: the market for Harper is far more defined than it was for Strasburg. No one has been talking about $50 million bonuses or blowing up the draft system. Harper will almost surely get less than Strasburg, more than Teixeria. Yes, it could very well take until August to nail down the precise number. But the debate is over a few million, maybe even a few hundred thousand, not tens of millions. Meaning that the reasons for a staredown are much smaller.

As for the impact on the other teams, I've heard that it is a factor too. But I think Harper is unique enough that the domino effect here would be small-to-nonexistent.

Avar said...

I think that, as usual, Mark is right and Harper will not sign until the deadline for reasons others have explained so as not to affect the deals of other draftees.

Even if he signed tonight, he would only play rookie level ball this year. They are not going to put a 17 year old into A ball no matter how well he does at rookie. So, whether it's in the rookie league or in Vierra like others described, he won't see A ball this year no matter what.

Granted, it's possible that he would make it to the big show prior to '13 or so but very unlikely.

ARod got called up in '94 at 19 after being drafted in '93 at 18. But, he shuffled between AAA and bigs for '94 and '95 and didn't explode until '96. Really hard to imagine anyone going faster than that. That would be a debut next year but not really full-time until '13. But things are different now than in '94 so I doubt they will let him go that fast. I think they will want him to dominate a level for half a season at least before he moves up.

Kevin Rusch, Section406 said...

Well, i did have some nice kool-aid with my Wheaties, but I say again -- why are you so certain that Harper will do exactly what Boras says? Who works for whom here? Does this kid really look like he'd want to sit on the bench for 6 weeks while Some Old Guys haggle over a million bucks? Seriously, it's just not in his best interest. Every day he doesn't get this deal done is one more day before his major-league free-agency clock starts ticking. (And yes, I know it's a year-at-a-time thing, but service time plays a factor in the amounts of your arbitration numbers.

Seriously, if he's half as good as he thinks he is, the difference between the Nats' first offer and Boras' first number will be dwarfed by his first free-agent years' salary. Let alone the money he'll be making when he's 35.

Anonymous said...

"Unfortunately, I'm here to douse the fire just a little bit. Because tonight's event... None of this is meant to dampen your excitement over the next 48 hours."

Well, which is it?

I don't really care either way, but you gotta pick one.

Les in NC said...

I dont think a 3-4 year wait is in the cards for Bryce. More like 2-3 years max. This kids talent is unequaled, he has proven that he can swing a wooden bat dominantly against pretty good pitching (the SWAC is known for pitching). Also at 18 he could play a full year playing up to AA, then in 2012 play his way into a cup of coffee at the major league level at the very least! IMO the only thing holding him back would be if the Nationals insist on him developing as a catcher (defensively) instead of moving him to RF.

A DC Wonk said...

FWIW, I recall talk last year that Bora$'s big clients usually sign on the last day (I have no idea of that's true).

BTW, another factor, Mark, that you didn't mention and that I've seen elsewhere -- the bargaining agreement between the Players Union and MLB is up for renewal next year, and there's talk of making the "slot money" concept in order to end big-time signing bonuses. But it's unclear to me how that would work.

FYI: I think that the Nats are only the second team to get back-to-back #1 picks. Ironically, the other team was Tampa Bay, in 2007 & 2008.

PDowdy83 said...

Just look at Jason Heyward. He made it up at 20 as well. The kid won't have to do much adjusting to wood bats either, which is one of the major problems when players are drafted. He has already been using them for 4 months. I would say he could be up at the age of 20 just like Heyward. Especially if he is moved to the outfield instead of catching.

Anonymous said...

There is the interesting and unique case of Al Kaline as far as the modern game. He was major league all-star ready right out the chute. I'm not sure Harper is a Kaline but if he moved to the outfield, where Kaline played, you would almost have to think he might get there in about the same time frame that Storen took. If he destroys the opposition at each rung. Its 3-4 years possibly more if they make him a catcher.

Anonymous said...

Kaline bypassed the minor league system and joined the team directly from Baltimore's Southern High School as an 18-year-old "bonus baby" signee, receiving $35,000 to sign with the Tigers.[6][7] He made his major league debut on June 25, 1953 in Philadelphia as a late-inning replacement for outfielder Jim Delsing. Kaline wore No. 25 during his rookie campaign, but asked teammate Pat Mullin for his No. 6 after the 1953 season ended. Kaline, who was also known simply as "Six" in the Tiger clubhouse, wore the number for the rest of his major league playing career.

In 1955, Kaline ended the season with a .340 batting average, becoming the youngest player ever to win the American League batting title. Tiger hall-of-famer Ty Cobb had also won a batting title at age 20, but Cobb was born on December 18, making him one day older than Kaline when he won.[8]

Janner33 said...

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I seem to recall that Andruw Jones was called up at 18 (or was it 19?) to play centre field for the Braves? If that's the case, then there is surely precedent for Harper to be called up within a year or so (presuming that he adjusts well to minor league ball)

Les in NC said...

Yes, Andruw was called up at 19. He played his first full season at 20.
Personally, I would like to see Harper break Tony Conigliaro's record of 24 HRs as a teenager.

Janner33 said...

Thanks Les. So if we use the Andruw Jones precedent, then Mark Z: is there any reason for the "one promotion per season" approach that you've outlined in the article? Do the Nats feel as though Harper needs a full season at each level to adjust?

Mark Zuckerman said...

Guys: Andruw Jones was signed out of Curacao at age 16. He spent most of three seasons in the minors before debuting with the Braves.

It's not about age. It's about experience in pro ball. For top players (especially pitchers) at a top college program (like Strasburg and Storen) it can happen quickly. But for teenagers like Harper (even though he's widely regarded as the best prospect in decades) it simply takes time. He has to establish he can dominate at each level of the minors before he'll be promoted.

Best-case scenario: He debuts in Sept. 2012 at age 19. More-likely scenario: He debuts sometime in 2013 at age 20. That's still really young.

Anonymous8 said...

ESPN did a really nice E:60 segment on Bryce. It is a must see. In one part of the show, he walks Rachel Nichols to where one of his HRs ended up across a highway on a dirt patch.

Also a good segment with Bryce's father.

The kid wants to sign quickly, I think his agent will advise a last minute signature. Should be exciting. Get the ulcer medication ready!

Janner33 said...

Thanks for the quick reply mark!

Ken said...

As I noted in the Nats MLB forum, 571 players have made their Major League debuts while they were in their teens. There are quite big names, including some Hall of Fame members on that list, and a greater number of not so greats.


Do you know if there's a chance that the Nats have Harper play in the Arizona Fall League this year if he signs, or would they wait until the 2011 or 2012 seasons? Thinking about my question, I guess it would depend as to whether or not he 1) signs quickly enough and 2) Impresses enough that they would consider sending him to the AFL.

Section 222 said...

I agree that he has to show he can dominate at each level before being called up. I'm just not sure he has to play at AA for a whole season to show that. What if he signs quickly and gets to single A this summer? Starts next year in AA and is hitting the crap out of the ball. You don't think he could get promoted to AAA in June or July, and then get a September 2011 call up? Or finish 2011 in AAA and be ready to play in the big leagues at the beginning of or mid-season in 2012? He'll be 19 then, unusual but not unprecedented. And getting started at the lower levels this summer would help him get to the majors quicker. I'm not sure that there's a certain path for "the best prospect in decades." It just depends on how well he plays in the minors, right?

Mark Zuckerman said...

Section 222: Yes, ultimately Harper's performance will dictate how quickly he advances. But again, I caution everyone that he is unlikely to play much (if at all) this season. Not saying it's impossible he'll sign before August, but I think it's highly unlikely.

One more comparison: Alex Rodriguez was drafted by the Mariners in 1993 at age 18. He did make his MLB debut the following summer at 19, but he bounced up and down between Seattle and AAA in 1994 and 95. He didn't become an everyday big-leaguer until 1996 at age 21.

Even for the absolute best, it takes some time to develop.

Section 222 said...

Thanks Mark. Yes, believe me, I'm not expecting Harper to start in RF next year and set the league on fire right away. And maybe he won't hit well enough in AA to warrant moving up quickly. But it will be interesting to see if he signs quickly to get started. The monetary payoff to him could be significant in the end if he does because if he waits until August he can't play any minor league ball this year and will have to start in single A next year as you suggest. That could easily delay his arrival in the bigs and becoming arbitration eligible. It certainly will take some guts and the willingness to postpone gratification for him to sign quickly.

Les in NC said...

So why can't we compare Harper to a Ken Griffey Jr? Drafted out of HS and into the majors 1 1/2 years later? Seems to me like if he IS the talent of a generation, then we can expect him to exceed "normal" promotion schedules. Yes, he is a young 17. Yes he is a high school player, or should have been. BUT he played college ball with a wood bat and dominated! Dominated! Is he suddenly going to be lost at the plate when he sees "better" pitching at the rookie league level? Or A-ball level? Traditionally batters DO take a couple of years to find their stroke with a wood bat, Harper is way ahead of that game. I don't think its a stretch to say he will be ahead of other recently drafted talent, enough so that he will see "the show" before them.

Joe Seamhead said...

I would be surprised if Harper has much trouble making the adjustment to hitting on a higher level, but if the Nats are going to make him into a RF as expected, he needs time to learn the position. Playing the OF is something he should be able to adjust to, given his athleticism,but it also takes a bit of time and experience to play on a pro level. If he's really all that they say he is, I can see him making the show after two full years of learning how to play the game.

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