Bauman: For Nats, No. 1 picks like no other
First Strasburg, now Harper: Washington makes waves again
Ideally, the First-Year Player Draft functions so that the worst clubs get the very best players and the whole process becomes one more push toward parity.
This does not always occur, with "signability" issues for some potential draftees and large-market franchises willing to spend very large sums on signing bonuses. But you cannot argue with the way the top of the Draft has worked the last two Junes for the Washington Nationals.
The Nationals' No. 1 selection in 2009, starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg, will, conveniently enough, make his first Major League start Tuesday night against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Strasburg was the most prized college pitcher in the Draft since Mark Prior in 2001. With the baseball Draft receiving much more exposure than it did then, Strasburg was easily the most publicized No. 1 draftee in Draft history. Until, perhaps, Harper.
Strasburg's record $15.1 million signing package from the Nationals didn't exactly limit the exposure, either. But, in a sensational, albeit brief Minor League stint this season, Strasburg, with his 100-mph heat and wonderfully mature command, has appeared to be fully worth both the hype and the money.
The real test obviously starts Tuesday night for Strasburg, but his potential for greatness has already been established. And now, the Nationals have drafted another player who could have a significant impact on the Washington franchise and the entire game.
You know the story. Harper has already been a Sports Illustrated cover. He left high school early, obtaining a general equivalency degree, so that he could play against tougher competition and make himself eligible sooner for the Draft. He has immense power and a very strong arm. His performance for the College of Southern Nevada, playing in a wooden-bat conference, has not only reinforced, but expanded his legend.
There had been some question about which position Harper would play as a professional. He had been primarily a catcher, but there was no question that his athleticism would allow him to play almost anywhere on the field. There had been speculation that right field might be the natural landing spot, given his arm strength and the fact that the Nats could get his bat to the Majors more rapidly as an outfielder.
The Nationals removed the drama from that situation by calling him an outfielder even as they announced his selection as the No. 1 pick.
One more sure thing is that, represented by agent Scott Boras, Harper will not be receiving anything other than maximum dollars. There is speculation that Harper/Boras will attempt to land a signing package even larger than that given to Strasburg. On the other side of the issue, Harper is a phenomenal talent regardless of age, but his age is 17. Even though his path to the big leagues should be made shorter by the switch to the outfield, in theory at least, he is much further away from the Majors than Strasburg was last June.
This is the payoff for the Nationals losing 205 games over the last two seasons. There is never a particularly good time to lose 100-plus games in consecutive seasons, but Strasburg and Harper became the silver lining around this particular cloud.
Admittedly, the Nats had to pay a precedent-shattering price to land Strasburg and they may have to spend their way into the same fiscal neighborhood to sign Harper. There are clubs, primarily small-market clubs, who avoid Boras clients on the grounds of fiscal conservatism and Major League Baseball's guidelines on signing bonuses based on Draft positions.
But the $15.1 million signing package for Strasburg may have been a case of the Nationals not being able to afford to pass on this opportunity. The young pitcher's talent has galvanized the attention of fans before he has thrown his first pitch in the Majors. He can repay that signing package not only through his performance but through increased attendance on his start days.
And Harper, while he cannot control a single game the way Strasburg might, has the kind of potential that will generate considerable excitement of its own. The Nationals have found themselves at the bottom of the league -- and thus, the top of the Draft -- at exactly the right time.
But this is the way the Draft is supposed to function. In a time when all of baseball has returned to its roots and scouting and player development have become central tasks for all 30 franchises, small-market teams may still be frightened away by the financial demands of some potential Draft choices. And those Draft choices may fall through the Draft into the waiting hands of clubs with greater ability to pay.
But in the cases of two of the highest-profile draftees this process has ever produced, the system is working. True, the Washington Nationals have to pay premium prices for the top talent they are drafting. But a major increase in fan interest will repay them. And so, with reasonably good fortune, will the performances of Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. Those 205 losses represented a lot of pain, but here comes the potential for even more gain.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.