A year after drafting Strasburg with the first pick in Major League Baseball's first-year player draft, the Nationals Monday night found his equal in high expectations.
Harper, the Nationals' latest can't-miss prospect, is a 17-year-old slugger who left high school a year ago after his sophomore season just so he could be eligible for this year's draft, which was held last night at MLB Network's spacious baseball-decorated studio.
When Bud Selig announced Harper as the Nationals' pick, the invite-only crowd here responded with an ovation that startled the commissioner.
"I didn't think it was that much of a surprise," Selig said, and the commissioner is right.
Sports Illustrated put Harper on the cover a year ago and referred to him as baseball's version of LeBron James. Scouts have been touting Harper's future as a power hitter for several years now, and his home run-hitting sessions and highlight reels have long been a mainstay on YouTube.
After leaving high school following his sophomore year, Harper earned his GED last December and enrolled in classes at College of Southern Nevada. There, in a wood-bat league, Harper hit .443 (101-for-228) with 23 doubles, four triples and 31 home runs and drove in 98 RBIs - against older players, too. Appearing on MLB Network last night via videotape from the office of his adviser, Scott Boras, Harper said of the draft, "It's what I wanted. I'm just trying to enjoy right now with my family."
Harper primarily has been a catcher in recent years, but scouts envision him as an outfielder in the majors to prolong his shelf life as a slugger. The Nationals, meanwhile, wasted no time referring to him as an outfielder in their press release.
"I can get better out there, I think," he said. "Anywhere they need me, I'll play. I just want to make it and we'll see what happens when I get there."
The fact that the Nationals won't bring Harper up as a catcher could help speed his development and perhaps bring him to the majors as soon as three years from now.
Former Mets manager Davey Johnson, who is a special adviser to Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo, represented the team last night. He said he saw Harper hit a 500-foot home run at Tropicana Field a year ago and knew he was going to be special. "I hope he signs quickly," Johnson said, laughing.
But with Boras as his agent, that seems unlikely. Teams have until 12:01 a.m. on Aug. 17 to sign their drafted players, and Boras typically waits until the last second to strike a deal. Last year Strasburg, another Boras client, signed right before the deadline.
Notes & quotes: Selig does not think there will be any changes to the umpiring system this season, but "I never say never." Regarding adding instant replay in more scenarios, Selig said his sense is that "most baseball people are against instant replay" but vowed, "I will do what I think is right." He also defended his decision not to overrule Jim Joyce's call that cost Detroit's Armando Galarraga a perfect game last week, saying "in this job, precedents are really important . . . Of course it would have opened a Pandora's box." Selig added that he spoke with Joyce by phone Monday.