Pirates need to downplay Bryce Harper

Let me start by saying that there’s no guarantee that the Pittsburgh Pirates get a chance to draft 17 year old phenom Bryce Harper in the 2010 draft.  The Washington Nationals have the first pick, and as we saw with Stephen Strasburg last year, Washington isn’t afraid to pursue a tough negotiation for a player labeled as a rare talent.  However, just because Washington took Strasburg doesn’t guarantee that they’ll take Harper.

Bryce Harper is a very interesting situation.  He left high school early, enrolled in the College of Southern Nevada, a community college in the JuCo ranks, which will allow Harper the chance to be drafted this year.  Had Harper enrolled in a Division I school, he wouldn’t be eligible until after his junior season.  Harper pursued this path because he has been labeled as “The LeBron James of baseball” by Sports Illustrated, and by taking this route he doesn’t have to wait two years to be drafted.

This weekend at the Pirates FanFest, Pittsburgh Pirates’ General Manager Neal Huntington commented on Harper with the following remarks (via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette):

“He’s getting a lot of hype,” Huntington said. “We will scout Bryce Harper. But we’re not going to select him because somebody thinks he’s the best prospect in the history of the game and we think he’s the 10th-best.”

That comment has been taken as “The Pirates rank Harper 10th in the draft” or “The Pirates don’t even have Harper in the top 10″.  In my translation of the statement, it means neither of these things.  The statement is saying that they will scout Harper, but they’re not drafting him unless they think he’s the best, regardless of what others think.  My interpretation matches what they actually did in 2009, when they took Tony Sanchez, rated #32 by Baseball America, over several of the top high school arms, and cited Sanchez as the best on their draft board.

Now if you want to point to 2009 as a preview of what will happen with Harper, keep in mind that in 2008 they drafted Pedro Alvarez, who was rated as the best prospect in the draft by Baseball America.  The two totally different draft styles suggest that we have no clue what the Pirates will do this June.  There is one thing I know they won’t do, and that’s feed in to the hype of Bryce Harper.  That’s also something they just can’t do.

Harper’s agent happens to be Scott Boras.  As if Boras needed the help, the hype on Harper is sky high, and that was the case before he even played a game this weekend.  In his first game on Friday there were a reported 40 scouts in attendance.  This hype will make the negotiations with Boras hard enough.  The last thing the Pirates, or any team, need to do is talk about taking Bryce Harper a good four months before the draft actually happens.  It’s hard to negotiate when you’re on record saying you’re taking Harper way back in February (which is probably why Washington didn’t commit to Strasburg until close to the 2009 draft).

There’s also no reason to commit to Harper when considering the potential fan backlash if the Pirates pass on him.  Where does the hype come from?  There’s the Sports Illustrated article that I linked to above, and there’s the Bryce Harper highlight video on YouTube, which features him hitting a 570 foot homerun.  It should be noted that this home run was hit in a fairly empty stadium, in batting practice, with a metal bat.

What doesn’t get reported often is that Harper has seen some slumps as a result of the attention paid to him.  There was the slump after the Sports Illustrated article, in which Harper went 0-for-10 following the article, and struck out four times in one game, which was uncharacteristic for him in high school.  To prevent these slumps, the Southern Nevada coach, Tim Chambers, has put Harper off-limits, with no autographs, handshakes, interviews, or conversations.  That’s good, but how will the 17 year old handle things once he gets drafted by a major league team?  Further more, how will he handle the pressure of having to live up to the hype that already exists.  You can eliminate contact with fans and reporters, but you can’t make Harper oblivious to the fact that the stands are packed, the media and scouts are watching, and everyone is talking about him being the next big thing.

I’m not taking a stance either way on Harper.  I’ve already said that I’ll be adding a Bryce Harper tracker, which will go up as soon as I can find some stats from CSN (they haven’t uploaded them to their site).  He’s obviously very talented, but I’m not calling him the obvious choice for the Pirates (again, assuming he falls to them), until I see what he does at CSN this year.  That’s mainly because there are a few players I’m also watching that I detailed back in October.

Let’s imagine that the Pirates say what everyone wants them to say, something along the lines of “we think Harper is a great talent and we’d take him if he falls to us”.  What happens if Harper struggles this season, and Anthony Ranaudo looks like the next Tim Lincecum, or Christian Colon bounces back from his injury, and hits for a good amount of power from the shortstop position?  The Pirates would have foolishly committed to Harper, which makes it hard for them to go for a guy like Ranaudo or Colon in this scenario.  If they did pass on Harper, they would be setting themselves up for tons of complaints that they went back on their word to draft Harper, even if it might have been a good decision in that scenario.

So if you’re worried about the comments made by the Pirates, just take a look around.  You’ll find that most teams will be downplaying Harper.  You’ll also see that most fans are wanting Harper, all because of the article in Sports Illustrated and the video on YouTube.  I have a feeling that all of the teams in baseball will consider Harper’s 2010 season at CSN before coming to the conclusion that these fans have already reached on whether or not Harper is the top guy on the board.  That’s the same approach I’ll be taking this season, and I invite you all to follow along once I get the Bryce Harper tracker uploaded.

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Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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