SECAUCUS, N.J. - The Washington Nationals got their ace a year ago. Now, they think they've found a big-time slugger.
The Nationals selected the much-hyped Bryce Harper, a 17-year-old with prodigious power, from the College of Southern Nevada with the No. 1 overall pick in Monday night’s draft.
“It’s what I’ve wanted since I was 7 years old,” Harper said.
A year after taking similarly hyped right-hander Stephen Strasburg, the Nationals took Harper, who can play catcher but was announced as an outfielder at the draft site at MLB Network studios by commissioner Bud Selig.
Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo envisions Harper as a No. 3-type power hitter with a strong arm in right field.
“We’re going to take the rigor and the pressures of learning the position, the difficult position of catcher, away from him,” Rizzo said, “and really let him concentrate on the offensive part of the game and let his athleticism take over as an outfielder.”
Harper hit .443 with 31 homers and 98 RBI in his first college season in a wood bat league, after skipping his final two years of high school and getting his GED.
Harper showed solid defensive instincts behind the plate and called pitches much of the time, but his path to the majors will be in the outfield.
“I can get better out there, I think,” Harper said. “Anywhere they need me, I’ll play. I just want to make it and we’ll see what happens when I get there.”
The 6-foot-3, 205-pound Harper surpassed former big league pitcher Alex Fernandez, who went fourth overall to the Chicago White Sox in 1990, as the highest-drafted junior college player.
With the second overall pick, Pittsburgh selected hard-throwing Texas high school righthander Jameson Taillon. He was considered by many the top pitcher in the draft with a fastball in the mid- to upper-90 mph range that overpowers hitters on a regular basis.
“There’s a lot there to like,” Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said.
Baltimore went next and picked smooth-fielding Florida high school shortstop Manny Machado, who has drawn comparisons to Alex Rodriguez for his ability and background.
“He’s been a target guy for us all spring,” said Joe Jordan, the Orioles’ scouting director.
Cal State Fullerton shortstop Christian Colon went to Kansas City at No. 4, and could end up playing second base. Cleveland then grabbed Ole Miss left-hander Drew Pomeranz, the Southeastern Conference pitcher of the year with the Justin Bieber haircut and a 90-94 mph fastball.
Harper is expected to seek a record contract through his adviser, Scott Boras, who negotiated a record-setting four-year, $15.1 million deal for Strasburg.
Last year’s top overall pick is scheduled to make his major league debut today, almost a year to the day after he was drafted.
“I can’t remember ... back-to-back years where there’s two players that have separated themselves from the rest of the field,” Rizzo said. “In that respect, it is very, very unique. I think it’s a lucky time to have two No. 1 picks overall.”
The Nationals have through Aug. 16 to sign Harper, who has said he has plenty of options, including going back to Southern Nevada for another year if negotiations go awry.
“He’s a player that wants to get out and play,” Rizzo said. “He’s the type of guy that does not enjoy idle time.”
Harper was the subject of a Sports Illustrated cover story while still in high school, and has reportedly hit baseballs over 550 feet. A hitter has not garnered that much national attention since possibly Florida State’s J.D. Drew, who went No. 2 overall to Philadelphia in 1997 but didn’t sign a contract with the Phillies.