February 21, 2024

Taking the Challenge, Both Harper and the Nationals

August 17, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Bryce Harper’s new teammates challenged the young man to fish or cut bait in the days before the August 16 signing deadline.  Stephen Strasburg said, “If he doesn’t want to play here, we don’t want him here.”   Ryan Zimmerman was almost as skeptical, saying in effect that he saw more maturity and character in Strasburg as an older more complete individual.  For $10 million Harper took up their challenge and is now fully committed to proving he is up to it.

Almost everyone has sung the praises of Bryce Harper without missing a note.  Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post rightfully likened Bryce Harper to Justin Upton who signed at 17 and was in the majors by 19.  Kilgore projected Harper to rise as quickly as Upton, but Zimmerman was less certain, doubting that junior college would ready Harper for a quick jump.  With a major league contract signed as part of the deal with the Nationals, Harper will have “four option years to finish his minor league apprenticeship, after which he’d have to pass through waivers to return to the farm system,” according to ESPN’s Keith Law.

Harper will start the next leg of his journey as an outfielder after spending most of his amateur career behind the plate.  But with the heightened expectations and shortened time horizon for making the big leagues, Harper’s move to the outfield was a foregone conclusion.  He has the arm for right field, but will spend his minor league years learning the outfield and how to read the ball off the bat. In the end however, it will be his own bat that will spell success.

The worst case scenario that Baseball Prospectus saw this summer for Harper was Adam Dunn.  Saying that a young man as large as Harper was likely to put on weight more like a Dunn than a Griffey, they speculated that at his worst, Harper would be a one-dimensional slugger who hit home runs in bunches like an Adam Dunn.  Not a bad downside bet and one the Nationals were willing to take.

Dunn is the dilemma now.   Do they have the money left to spring for their best slugger in the here and now.  It will take much more to sign Dunn than Harper.  And after the Nationals spent a record amount on their draft, they will have their work cut out for them in the coming off season.  But as Tom Boswell rightly pointed out on Monday morning the Nationals are becoming a better baseball destination, working very effectively with uber-agent Scott Boras.  There may be down sides to that affair, but for now it is reaping dividends in remaking the city into a popular destination for the best in baseball talent.

In the last few days Washington signed one of the best high school pitchers in the draft in A.J. Cole.  He dropped to the fourth round over slight health problems that many feared would lead him to college instead of the pros.  The Nationals got him for $2 million on Saturday and then added San Diego’s Sammy Solis–their second round pick–for another million.  Then they nabbed another tough-sign Robbie Ray.  Ray was firmly committed to a college career at Arkansas and Washington took him in the 12th round.  But they got him for $800,000, the biggest bonus at that level in the history of the draft.  Running down the list of picks in the Baseball America database, the signing bonuses alone for Washington’s top picks totals more than $11 million.

Washington signed 25 of their first 26 picks in the draft.  Throw in international signing Yuniesky Maya, and the Nationals have brought in a record crop of talent.  Now, the pressure is on the existing organization to develop them.  Past drafts have been given high marks coming out of the gate, but shown mixed results in getting them to the big league level.  So the challenge is not just for Bryce Harper.  It is for the team that has signed him as well.  Like marriage, major league success is a two-way street.

Hopefully the commitment of the Nationals in 2010 to sign their best draft class ever, will lead to a change in their big league fortunes in the near future.  One thing is for certain.  After years of being slighted by fans for not spending money on the team, the Lerner family has proven themselves up to the task.  The talent is there. The money and the will is there.  From here on in it is all about the chemistry.

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