Zuckerman: Nats Sign Harper Before Deadline

Zuckerman: Nats Sign Harper Before Deadline
August 17, 2010, 4:04 am
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Tuesday, August 17, 2010, 12:04 a.m., Updated at 1:40 a.m.

By Mark Zuckerman

Rest easy, Nationals fans: Bryce Harper has signed with Washington.

And based on the major-league contract he got from the Nationals right at the buzzer, the 17-year-old's trek to the major leagues may not be a long one.

Harper and the Nationals came to terms on a five-year, 9.9 million deal less than one minute before tonight's midnight deadline, ensuring the No. 1 draft pick will enter the organization's farm system and begin what could be a fast track toward his big-league debut in the next two or three seasons.

The major-league deal, one of only a handful ever given to draft picks under the age of 20, was a bit of a surprise. The Nationals, though, were willing to make that commitment because they feel Harper can reach the big leagues in short order.

"I think it speaks to how hard he's worked over the season, and how ready we feel he is to endure the rigors of professional baseball," general manager Mike Rizzo said during a jubilant press conference in which he received a whipped cream pie in the face from team president Stan Kasten.

The 9.9 million total package (which includes a 6.25 million signing bonus) represents the largest bundle ever given to a drafted position player, breaking Mark Teixeira's previous record of 9.5 million. It still pales in comparison to the four-year, 15.1 million contract the Nationals gave Stephen Strasburg last summer, the largest package any draft pick has ever received.

Though Rizzo and Harper's agent, Scott Boras, had discussed general parameters earlier, the final terms still weren't agreed upon when the clock struck 11:59 p.m.

"With a full minute to go, Mike and I both thought we were not going to have a deal," Kasten said. "I think Scott would have said the same thing."

But both sides were willing to relent on some terms in that final, frantic minute, and Rizzo and Boras verbally agreed on the contract before midnight.

"It was both sides compromising, and knowing that both sides were so close, it would be fruitless not to get a deal done," Rizzo said. "We had an organization that wanted the player. We had a player who wanted to be in the organization. And once the smoke cleared, we found common ground to get a deal done."

Harper's signing caps a two-year odyssey for the Las Vegas baseball phenom, one that saw him get his GED and appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated at 16, then hit .443 with 31 homers and 98 RBI with a wood bat at the College of Southern Nevada.

All of this was part of a calculated plan to make himself eligible for this draft, one year earlier than other players his age.

Harper, who worked out on his own the last two months while waiting for the signing deadline, is expected to be introduced in a press conference at Nationals Park next week, then will report immediately to the Gulf Coast League in Viera, Fla., to begin his professional career. Rizzo said he'll then play in the Florida instructional league in late-September and could move on to the Arizona Fall League in October if he's deemed ready to face that high level of competition.

Harper will be learning a new position throughout this process. Primarily a catcher during his amateur career, he'll move to right field as a professional. The Nationals believe he'll have a faster path to the big leagues, not to mention less chance of breaking down physically, in the outfield.

There haven't been many amateur players over the years who have matched Harper's ability, but one who does favor comparably is Braves right fielder Jason Heyward, who was drafted in 2007 and was named an All-Star this season as a 20-year-old rookie. The man who drafted Heyward as Atlanta scouting director was Roy Clark, who sat next to Kasten tonight as the Nationals' vice president of player personnel.

"Don't ask me which one I would take," Clark said with a laugh, unable to rate one higher than the other.

Harper's signing capped a productive final night of negotiations for the Nationals, who also signed three other top picks before the deadline for amounts well above MLB's slot recommendations.

Left-hander Sammy Solis, their second-round pick from the University of San Diego, signed for 1 million. Florida high school right-hander A.J. Cole signed for 2 million (a record amount for a fourth-round pick). And 12th-round pick Robbie Ray, a high school left-hander from Tennessee, took the Nationals' 799,000 offer and bypassed a scholarship from the University of Arkansas.

Washington wound up signing 25 of its top 26 draft picks, all but 14th rounder Tim Smalling, a shortstop who plans to return to Virginia Tech for his senior season.

"It shows the commitment from ownership to give us the resources to go out and really have an impactful draft," Rizzo said. "We had four players that at some time during the amateur season were first-round picks on Baseball America's list. ... It goes down to the commitment of ownership to field a championship organization."

Mark Zuckerman covered the Nationals for The Washington Times from 2005-09. In addition to regular work this season for CSNwashington.com, he also covers the team at www.natsinsider.com. Email Mark at zuckerman12@gmail.com.