Monday, June 29, 2009
Harper looking for a challenge
CARY, N.C. -- Bryce Harper recently announced he will take his GED, leave high school after two years and enroll at the College of Southern Nevada this fall. This should make the Las Vegas High School catcher eligible for the 2010 Rule 4 draft, when he'd be the overwhelming favorite to be the No. 1 overall pick.
This move -- expected among major league scouts and team executives since last summer -- has raised all manner of questions and stirred up controversy over who is making the decisions for Harper and whether he is making the right move.
Playing on Tuesday at the Tournament of Stars event held at USA Baseball's stunning complex, Harper is the nation's best high school player right now. The same was true a year ago, when he exploded onto the scene at the Area Code Games as a rising freshman, a 15-year-old facing and dominating competitors who were mostly 17 and 18. He's been hitting against older competitors for years; Harper has earned invitations to play on travel teams of older players since he was 10 years old.
He's played in prestigious events, including the Area Code Games -- which he called the biggest baseball challenge he's faced and a "phenomenal experience" -- and on the national team in the age 16 and under division. He's a potential five-tool talent who plays the most difficult position on the field. He puts on a display in batting practice, launching balls out to right field with a sound so loud it leaves bystanders looking for the shattered-bat remnants.
One problem extremely talented prep players like Harper can face is the lack of a challenge. Harper has had no trouble hitting against high school pitchers in Nevada or in summer ball, and in high school he finds himself pitched around frequently.
"High school was a great experience for two years, I loved it," Harper said Tuesday. "I just want to get out of there where I'm getting walked 40, 50 times a year."
His father, Ron, put it more bluntly: "I think his overall average was around .630 with the playoffs, and [he] didn't really get pitched to; that's not a lot of fun for him. There's a lot of frustration there."
Budget cuts in Nevada have made matters worse, according to Ron Harper, reducing the regular season for Las Vegas High to 18 games. At the College of Southern Nevada, Harper will be able to play 60 games, and will do it in a more challenging environment.
"College is going to push him academically, and also on the field it's going to push him," Ron Harper said. "He's going to play a lot of older guys, bigger guys, stronger guys, for 60 games."
At CSN, Harper will play in one of the top junior college baseball programs in the country. The 2009 nonconference schedule included games against most of the major two-year programs, including Central Arizona, San Jacinto (Texas), Miami-Dade and Chipola (Fla.). The school also uses wood bats, which should ease the transition into pro ball. Harper prefers wood bats -- "I've always wanted to swing the wood. If I could have swung the wood in high school, I would have" -- but couldn't use them in high school games.
Harper's readiness on the baseball field, at least for the jump to junior college, isn't really in question. His readiness for the emotional or mental challenges to come is more difficult to ascertain, although to his credit he recognizes that at some point he's going to fail.
"There's always going to be failure; baseball's a game of failure," he said. "If you K, you can't go back on that game and say, 'Oh, crap, I went 0-for-4.' There's a million more games to play. You've got to get better, you've got to progress. You can't say, 'Well, I K'd that game so I'll just quit.' It's a team game; as long as your guys won, that's what matters."
As for the increasing pressure as he moves up the baseball ladder, Harper isn't concerned.
"I love pressure," he says. "If there is any pressure on me, I thrive on it. Two outs, bottom of the ninth, I want to be that guy. We played Cuba last year, in the 16U [age 16 and under] championships. I came in the last inning. I pitched. It was the biggest pressure of my life -- don't lose the game for the USA -- but it was awesome, a great experience. I've had pressure on me since I was 8 years old."
Ron Harper has come under fire for what some members of the media argue is a dereliction of his parental duty. Bryce is still a minor, and Ron has ultimate responsibility for his son. Ron says he's happy to take the criticism if it allows Bryce to concentrate on playing, and for his part, argues that this was a family decision.
"I said, 'Are you sure you want to do all this? It's OK -- you can always go back to high school'," Ron said. "But he said, 'No, Dad, I want to do it. I want to do it.' And people say, well, you're the adult, you need to make that decision for him, but he's a pretty mature kid, and he's a good kid, and the level of baseball that he's been playing at, and the level of school he's been at, he needs to be pushed. And I believe that, and my wife and the coaches and the whole staff from the HS believe it too."
If Bryce wants to take this step, and all indications are that he is ready to do so, why would his father stand in his son's way?
In fact, much of the hue and cry over Harper's plan to leave high school two years early is rubbish. If Harper is eligible for the 2010 draft after his first year of junior college -- and he should be, although Ron indicated he has yet to receive a "100 percent answer" on that question from MLB -- he'll be 17 years and almost eight months old on draft day.
That would make him just two months younger than Mike Trout and Randal Grichuk were June 9, when they were selected in the first round of the 2009 draft. The Marlins' third-round pick, Da'Shon Cooper, is one year to the day older than Harper. None of their fathers were criticized for allowing their sons to enter pro ball at such a young age.
Inevitably, there's also a backlash in the scouting community, among the same scouts who dropped what they were doing at the 2008 Area Code Games to watch every one of Harper's at-bats. On Tuesday, when one scout learned I was writing a piece about Harper, he said "Don't feed the machine," referring to the tremendous hype that already surrounds the player.
It's perfectly natural for a talented player like Bryce Harper to want to be challenged further when he has already shown he has mastered his current level. It's not the place for anyone, including MLB or the media, to deny him the chance to succeed or fail at a higher level of play. The smart money is on him succeeding.
Keith Law, formerly the special assistant to the general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays, is the senior baseball analyst for Scouts Inc.