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Posted: Monday May 3, 2010 12:19PM; Updated: Monday May 3, 2010 4:12PM
Jon Heyman

Top prospect Harper likely to seek record-setting signing bonus

Story Highlights

Seventeen-year-old Bryce Harper is considered the likely No. 1 pick

The Nationals have not said yet that they plan to take Harper with the first pick

Harper has shown massive power at the College of Southern Nevada

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Bryce Harper
Bryce Harper has opened eyes with his offense, but defensively he may be moved from catcher to either third base or the outfield.
Robert Beck/SI

Word going around the game is that the country's consensus top amateur player, the already legendary 17-year-old slugging catcher Bryce Harper, who is being advised by Scott Boras, will seek to break last year's record $15.67 million bonus set by Stephen Strasburg after Harper is selected at or near the top of next month's draft.

Of course, at this time last year, the scuttlebutt was that Strasburg might seek to receive a bonus in line with the $51-million positing the Red Sox paid for Daisuke Matsuzaka. And while Boras was believed to have drawn a comparison between Strasburg and Matsuzaka in talks with the Nationals, ultimately Strasburg signed with the Nationals for an amount that was slightly less than a third of what the Red Sox paid for the right to sign Matsuzaka (though still about 50 percent more than the previous record bonus of $10 million for drafted players that Mark Prior and Mark Teixeira got).

The Nationals once again hold the No. 1 pick, which they used last year on Strasburg, who's been stellar at Double-A Harrisburg (Pa.) and is expected to be promoted to the majors around June 1. But they haven't committed yet to taking Harper. Nationals president Stan Kasten responded by text that it's "too early'' to say who they're taking No. 1. But the improving Nats showed last year they aren't scared off by high bonuses -- or Boras.

Harper enters the draft more legendary than Strasburg or -- thanks in part to a Sports Illustrated cover story on him last spring that called him "Baseball's LeBron -- almost anyone else who's ever been drafted. But is he a bigger prospect?

He's still only 17, so there's some variance of opinion as to how he compares to Strasburg, a college junior who was a pretty mature product by the time of last year's draft. There are even differences of opinion over Harper's position and personality.

There does seem to be a consensus about Harper's power, which is seen as nothing short of extraordinary.

"He's the real deal,'' one American League scout said.

"His power is ridiculous,'' a National League scout said.

Most don't view the Las Vegas native as much of a gamble at this point. Some scouts are hesitant to say too much at this time, but at least one said Harper's power is so great that he has to be considered the best player in this draft.

"He's separated himself from the pack,'' one scout said.

Indeed, the power of Harper, a 6-foot-3, 210 pound left-handed hitter, is seen as nothing short of otherworldly. He has 21 home runs -- many of them moonshots -- in 168 at-bats at the College of Southern Nevada against competition that may not be the Pac-10 but still has to be considered quite high for someone who is the same age as most high school juniors. All of those have come in front of scouts for baseball's neediest teams, most prominently the Nationals, who have the No. 1 pick, plus the Pirates and Orioles, who have the second and third picks, respectively.

As is typical of presumptive No. 1 picks, a few knocks have been heard about Harper, mainly involving his storied confidence. Some call it cockiness. He was ejected from one game for taunting, and reportedly was seen bowing after a particularly strong throw. Others completely ignore that chatter, pointing out how anyone would get a big head under the circumstances. "How could you not feel good about yourself if you're on [the cover of] Sports Illustrated at (16)?'' one scout pointed out. Some have also mentioned how he's been programmed to become a star from a young age, like Tiger Woods and former football phenom Todd Marinovich, but that's not necessarily seen as a negative by everyone.

But this is still kid stuff, his handlers point out. He is, after all, only 17. And he is maturing, they say. This was supposed to be Harper's junior year of high school, but to further his baseball career he dropped out of Las Vegas High, got a GED and enrolled in the solid wood-bat league in preparation for the draft.

Some scouts have tried to suggest the pitching he's facing isn't great, but some scouts who've seen him dispute that notion, and others point to the fact he's put up absurd numbers using a wooden bat. In addition to the 21 home runs, he has 64 RBIs, and a .417 batting average, an .899 slugging percentage and a .507 on-base percentage.

The other question is his position. Harper played catcher through high school, and one scout said that while he has "an absolute gun'' of arm (as a pitcher, he's been clocked at 97 mph), he questioned Harper's "set-up'' as a catcher and wasn't certain that would ultimately be his position. Another scout concurred, saying it was too early to judge, and a third scout suggested that right field or third base might work just as well.

The Nats are set at third base with Ryan Zimmerman, but their catcher is 40-year-old Ivan Rodriguez and they are in flux in right field, so they'd have room. The Nats, Pirates and Orioles have been scouting all of Harper's recent games, so presumably he won't get past the third pick. There was a time the top player might slip further due to signability issues, but most teams understand now that a lot of the very top amateurs usually wind up as bargains (Teixeira and Strasburg are examples of that).

As a mature, 21-year-old Division I pitcher with three exceptional pitches, Strasburg was that rare, once-in-a-decade player who had nary a negative. Harper, four years younger, probably can't be considered quite as sure a thing, but he may have slightly more leverage in that Strasburg wasn't likely to return to school for his senior year. It seems a stretch to think that after taking such an accelerated path to this point Harper would forego his first chance to sign.

Next, a look at 25 of the top potential draftees, based on interviews with a half-dozen scouts and scouting directors ...

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