Mike Rizzo scouts, meets Bryce Harper
One of the most pressing questions surrounding the Nationals -- and the entire sport -- this summer is whether Washington will draft ultra-hyped, ultra-talented 17-year-old slugger Bryce Harper with the first overall pick in baseball's first-year player draft on June 7?
The organization took an important step toward answering that this weekend, as General Manager Mike Rizzo scouted Harper in person for the first time, watching him play two doubleheaders for the College of Southern Nevada against Eastern Utah. Rizzo also met Harper face-to-face.
"I think Mike walked out of there with a good feeling about what the kid did," Nationals Director of Amateur Scouting Kris Kline said.
This weekend, Harper caught in two games and played right field in the two others. He went 6 for 12 with two doubles and four walks, which added to his outrageous stats. After skipping his senior year of high school to enroll in junior college, Harper is hitting .417 with a .507 on-base percentage and an .899 slugging percentage.
Some have criticized Harper's level of competition, which Kline brushed aside. "One thing I always have to remind myself, he is 17 years old," Kline said. "This is the best league he can play in, and he's dominating."
The school record for homers before Harper played at CSN this season was 13, and that came with using metal bats, Kline said. Harper has 21 homers in 186 at-bats this year, using wood bats. Particularly impressive to Kline is that the majority of home runs he has seen Harper hit have been to the opposite field, a skill few players at Harper's age possess.
Not surprisingly, Kline called Harper, "a huge priority for us." Kline first saw Harper play when Harper was 15, and he has watched Harper play 12 times this season. The Nationals' area scout in Harper's region has seen him 16 times this season.
This year, Harper's attitude came under fire following a Baseball Prospectus article critical of Harper's makeup. The piece quoted one scout that called him "just a bad, bad guy" and described another scout who characterized Harper as "among the worst amateur players he's ever seen from a makeup standpoint."
Kline responded strongly in defense of Harper's makeup.
"I think he's got great makeup," Kline said. "I have absolutely no problems with the kid's makeup. He's a great kid.
"Bryce looks like a big leaguer. He carries himself like a big leaguer. Does he get upset? Of course. He does hold himself to a high standard. I don't think he feels like he should make an out. Is he going to have to make adjustments? Yes. As far as his makeup, I think he's a class act."
Kline said he had read the article questioning Harper's demeanor and pointedly called it, "absolutely the worst, most ridiculous, stupidest article I've ever read. That was horrible." He called the unnamed scout quoted "gutless" for not giving his name.
Kline offered evidence for his high opinion of Harper from his time around him. Harper, Kline said, wakes up early to work out with friends and attends Bible Study on Sundays. Kline said Harper's parents are "extremely solid people. This is a really good family."
This weekend, with Rizzo watching on, Harper interacted with children from a local Little League and, "he seemed in his element," Kline said. "He seemed comfortable with that."
Given Kline's enthusiasm for Harper's personality and Harper's obviously towering ability, it may seem as if Harper is shoe-in to become the top overall choice. But Kline stressed two things: The choice will ultimately be Rizzo's, and the Nationals have yet to come to a final decision.
Rizzo will also personally scout several Division I conference tournaments, particularly the ACC and SEC, where most of this year's college pitching talent is stocked. Kline said the Nationals have winnowed their options for the first choice to three or four players, with Harper among the group.
"We could talk about other guys, too," Kline said. "There's other players. There are a lot of good players."
The choice, because of the immense attention Harper already has received, will bring unique pressure to both the player (if he's picked) and the Nationals organization (no matter what).
Harper's strengths have been well-documented, perhaps with more intensity than any other draft prospect in history. If the Nationals choose him and he fails, they could be blamed for not heeding the various warnings. If the Nationals pass him over and he delivers on his potential, they could blamed for not making an obvious choice.
And then there is the negotiation. The Nationals successfully negotiated with notorious agent Scott Boras to strike a record deal for top pick Stephen Strasburg last year. There already has been speculation that Boras, who also advises Harper, will demand a bonus that surpasses the $15.1 million the Nationals gave Strasburg.
After all of that is finished, Harper will actually have to begin his career.
"What if Bryce goes out and hits .250 with 20 home runs?" Kline said. "He probably didn't live up to his expectations. But that's still a pretty good big leaguer. We're not going to put any expectations on this kid if we take him."
The Nationals have about one month to make their decision.
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