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Is this baseball’s next sure thing?

Sports Illustrated put Harper on the cover when he was only 16

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Bryce Harper is expected to be the first player taken in the Major League Baseball draft — and is rated as perhaps the best 17-year-old player ever to be drafted.

Bryce Harper is expected to be the first player taken in the Major League Baseball draft — and is rated as perhaps the best 17-year-old player ever to be drafted.

Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

HENDERSON, Nev. — At age 4, Bryce Harper would swing a Bam-Bam plastic club straight from "The Flintstones." But it was too light. When he was 13 and already making professional scouts twitch, Harper practiced with a 20-pound rod of steel from his father's construction site. But it was too heavy.

Today, Harper whips his Marucci CU26 maple wand through the strike zone with hummingbird speed and Hummer power. It is just right — so right that this fairy-tale 17-year-old will probably be selected by the Washington Nationals with the first pick of baseball's June 7 amateur draft.

One year after taking the college phenom Stephen Strasburg — considered by most scouts to be the best pitching prospect since the Major League draft began in 1965 — the Nationals can now pick what many view to be the best teenage power-hitting prospect since perhaps Mickey Mantle. Better than Darryl Strawberry, the top selection in 1980. More advanced than Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez and Joe Mauer, other first-pick prodigies to whom Harper best compares.

Baseball scouts can have the bowed perspective of an Escher print, but most insist they have seen no player this good this soon. As far as they are concerned, Harper is a tape-measure-testing, laser-throwing, eyeblack-oozing baseball cyborg.

"I don't like to put labels on kids like they're the best this or the best that, but with this kid I don't think we have much choice," said one veteran scout who watched Harper play Thursday for College of Southern Nevada, a junior college just outside his home of Las Vegas.

Speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss his evaluations, the scout added, "I honestly don't think we've seen anything like him in my 30 years doing this. He's that good."

A catcher and occasional outfielder whose 6-foot-3, 205-pound frame is still filling out, Harper already holds the draft record for hype: Sports Illustrated put him on its cover last year as a high school sophomore, and videos of his left-handed bombs are mushrooming across YouTube.

For a teenager, Harper has been tested in an unprecedented way. Many sluggers of his age have lost their power after trading their aluminum bat for wood. Former Yankees phenom Drew Henson is a good example. But Harper has assuaged those concerns through a maneuver never tried before.

After hitting .626 with 14 home runs last spring and winning Baseball America's high school player of the year award — no junior had ever been so honored, let alone a sophomore — Harper completed his general-equivalency diploma so he could be drafted a year early. He also enrolled at Southern Nevada so he could play in a wood-bat league.

All Harper has done this season is hit .420 with 23 home runs and 68 runs batted in over 57 games through Friday. (That day, he smacked four line-drive hits in four at-bats to lead the Coyotes to the regional tournament finals.) No 17-year-old in draft history has ever shown such power so convincingly.

Mike Rizzo, the Nationals' scouting-oriented general manager, said Harper was among three or four players the team was considering with the top pick. But most onlookers expect Harper to be the easy choice.

"When we're talking about a high school or college batter, we're always worried about his hitting, his power potential, and how does that correlate when he gets a wood bat in his hands," Rizzo said by telephone. "This gives us a long-term look at how he makes adjustments. And his bat speed. It kind of takes the guesswork out of a few of the particulars."

Harper's father, Ron, played in high school against Las Vegas' most famous baseball product to date, Greg Maddux.

Ron Harper defended what he called "a family decision" to have Bryce leave school early: "He wasn't dropping out and mowing lawns or anything. He was moving up to a better level of competition and using the wood bat."

Harper was not allowed by his father or his coach, Tim Chambers, to be interviewed for this article. By most accounts he has handled the attention and expectations reasonably well for a 17-year-old. He plays the game with a purpose bordering on mania, and has an elaborate routine before each plate appearance — he drops his bat and rubs both palms in the dirt before spitting on them and repeating the exercise.

Harper is a fan of "Bull Durham" and songs by Big & Rich — which figures, considering his impending payday. Strasburg broke the draft record by signing a $15.1 million contract last August; Harper will probably command more, because he could take his once-in-a-generation swing back to junior college next year and get drafted again.

Draft clients of Scott Boras, who is advising the Harper family, have a history of taking unique paths to record dollars and notoriety to match. A cautionary tale comes from Matt White, a Pennsylvania high-schooler in 1996 whose otherworldly fastball led some scouts to call him the best high-school pitcher in draft history. Boras used a rules loophole to get White declared a free agent, and he eventually signed a $10.2 million contract with Tampa Bay that stunned the industry and became White's permanent identity.

White never threw a pitch in the major leagues because of ineffectiveness and injuries. As luck would have it, he became a coach for the United States' national 18-and-under team last summer and was one of the few people who could understand what Harper was in for.

"He's under such a microscope — it's really not fair, the amount of attention that he has received," White said. "For me, it was a lot of distractions, having to deal with the media and them putting a dollar number on you all the time. Those expectations get you out of your main purpose.

"I hope Bryce has the opportunity to slow things down and concentrate on his game, his skills. If he can slow the game down, he's going to be lights out — he's head and shoulders from everyone in his age class with power and presence."

The only question with Harper appears to be his eventual position. He has a fantastic arm behind the plate, but could be moved to the outfield to protect his knees and hands from unnecessary beatings.

Mauer, as spectacularly as he has played for the Minnesota Twins, misses 20 games a year — and sometimes more — for physical reasons, and some consider Harper's bat too valuable to sit. A move to right field is possible, similar to the transition once made by the former Atlanta Braves slugger Dale Murphy.

Either way, the legend of Bryce Harper will earn a welcome dose of realism by his entering professional baseball. It is not hard to dream about Harper possibly catching Strasburg in Washington in a few years, the baseball equivalent of a Beethoven-Mozart duet.

"No question it's interesting to think about," Rizzo said. "It would take care of two premium spots right there for us, that's for sure. But we're still trying to figure out who we're taking."

Figures to be Harper. From there the figures — of dollars and home runs and eyeballs — will follow.