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Indeed, skyrocketing bonuses and the influence of big-market clubs have undercut the very purpose of the draft: to help weaker franchises get better. Teams such as the Pirates and the Astros, for instance, have either behaved well when it comes to the recommended slotting system or avoided prospects thought to be unsignable. That's good news for those clubs' accountants but bad for the player-development systems that should help chronically bad teams improve. Pittsburgh, for instance, drafted no lower than 11th every year from 2001 to '07. In those years, however, because of budget concerns and sometimes plain old poor evaluations, it passed on a slew of highly rated prospects who might have strained the budget but have turned into stars: David Wright, B.J. Upton, Zack Greinke, Prince Fielder, Ian Stewart, Aaron Hill, Jered Weaver, Stephen Drew, Phil Hughes, Clayton Kershaw, Tim Lincecum, Matt Wieters and Jason Heyward.
The Pirates did pick one impact player, outfielder Andrew McCutchen in 2005. Otherwise their first-round picks have been a pedestrian bunch: John Van Benschoten, Bryan Bullington, Paul Maholm, Neil Walker, Brad Lincoln and Daniel Moskos, a collection of misses that have provided Pittsburgh with two home runs and a pitching record of 43--64.
Like the Pirates, Houston has missed out on young talent by refusing to invest in the draft. In 2007, for instance, the Astros failed to sign four of their top 11 picks. (A player who doesn't sign can reenter the draft the following year.) In '08 the franchise whiffed on signing six of its top 25 picks. Of Houston's 243 picks over the past five drafts, only three have played even a day in the majors (shortstop Tommy Manzella, third baseman Chris Johnson and pitcher Bud Norris, all marginal big leaguers). By comparison, the Red Sox have produced 10 big leaguers thus far from those five drafts, and the Rangers 11.
Meanwhile, the Astros haven't hesitated to sink millions of dollars into older free agents with lower ceilings than top draft picks. Last winter they gave righthander Brandon Lyon a three-year contract that guarantees him $15 million—essentially spending roughly three years of draft budgets on a 30-year-old setup reliever pitching for his fifth organization. Last year teams spent an average of $5.4 million on draft bonuses for picks in the first 10 rounds—or less than 3% of a franchise's average revenue. Says one G.M. of the draft, "It's the most cost-efficient thing we do in baseball. You hit with one or two picks [a year], and it makes your organization."
The draft includes 50 rounds, so hitting .040 in the draft is an achievement—a testimony to the difficulty of projecting how amateur talent will pan out in the big leagues. Even the top of the draft is fraught with misses. Of the top 30 picks each year from 2000 to '05, 31% have never reached the big leagues (55 of 180). Despite all those misses, the ones who do make it provide the most talent for the buck. "I think numberswise maybe more guys are getting there now," said Yankees vice president of scouting Damon Oppenheimer. "But has there been longevity and impact? You can say guys touched the big leagues, but is that all that you're looking for from a first-round pick?"
There are high expectations for every player picked No. 1, but even by those standards Harper is considered a can't-miss prospect. What's up for debate is whether or not he should exceed Strasburg's riches. "If they were in the same draft, Strasburg would be the consensus Number 1 pick and Harper Number 2," says one general manager, "so Harper shouldn't get more. Take the record for a high school player [the $6.3 million given to outfielder Donavan Tate last year by the Padres] and apply the 50 percent premium Strasburg got, and you're at about $10 million."
There's a flaw in that logic, though—Harper may not be old enough to vote, but he isn't really a high school player. He should be a junior, but he famously ditched his final two years at Las Vegas High, obtained a general equivalency degree and enrolled in junior college in order to face better competition and become draft-eligible a year early. Boras, as family adviser, says he hatched the plan for the catcher to leave high school when Harper was "14 or 15." It's worked out just fine. Swinging a wood bat in the Scenic West Athletic Conference against many major-college- and draft-quality pitchers two and three years older, Harper even exceeded the hype this season by batting .442 and slugging .986 with 29 home runs and 89 RBIs. In a May 22 win over Central Arizona that put College of Southern Nevada into the Juco World Series, Harper went 6 for 6, with all of his hits for extra bases: four homers, a double and a triple. (All of CSN, including Harper, used metal bats in their playoff games.) "He is the greatest power hitter at his age that's ever been seen," Boras says. "This kid has more power than A-Rod, Griffey or any of them.
"No baseball person in his right mind will have the guy catch. You can't take an asset with that kind of a gift and put it at risk."
Indeed, Harper, a lefthanded hitter, has the athleticism to play the outfield and third base. Says one G.M. when asked to assess Harper's major league potential, "He has plus-plus power. He's not going to hit for a high average, but he's going to hit 35 home runs or more a year consistently. As a catcher you would have to invest four years in the minors with him. He's a number 5 hitter who will hit .260, .270 with a [boat] load of bombs."
How rare is a lefthanded hitting outfielder or catcher who can hit 35 home runs? No current such outfielder did it last year, and only five active lefty-hitting players have done it as outfielders: Adam Dunn, Ken Griffey, Jim Edmonds, Garret Anderson and Matt Stairs. No active lefthanded-hitting catcher has.