Commentary

Bryce Harper is not Stephen Strasburg

Nationals face same hype, questions, but young slugger has growing to do

Updated: August 17, 2010, 6:06 PM ET
By Tim Keown | ESPN.com

Earlier this season, in a major league clubhouse that will remain unidentified, a group of players sat and stood around a computer screen watching YouTube videos of Bryce Harper. A former MVP was among them, and there was universal admiration for Harper's talent.

[+] EnlargeBryce Harper
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireBryce Harper's polished swing and power have the attention of big leaguers.

They shook their heads in appreciation when he hit one of his tape-measure homers. They also took note of some of Harper's other attributes, most notably the elaborate, self-aggrandizing routine he goes through before every at-bat.

For this -- and the KISS-like eye-black formation -- there was considerably less than universal admiration. These guys understand youthful cockiness -- some of them had been there themselves -- but they weren't very understanding in this case. One pitcher said he would expect Harper to get knocked off the plate the first time he pulled that in the big leagues. Only he said it a little more harshly.

This serves as a little background for Stephen Strasburg's comments from Sunday, when he had some pointed words for Harper the day before Harper and the Nationals agreed on a $9.9 million deal.

Among other things, Strasburg said, "If he doesn't want to play here, then we don't want him here."

Obviously, you can't account for the manner in which Strasburg delivered those words. They could have been shrugging or nasty -- probably somewhere in between. Strasburg also had pitched that day, and not as well as he would have liked, so there's a good chance he didn't want to spend a lot of time talking about Harper.

Still, his comments were somewhat surprising given a few pertinent facts: (1) both No. 1 picks are represented by Scott Boras, and there's a code of honor among clients; (2) Strasburg waited until 77 seconds before the deadline to agree with the Nationals last year, which means every Nationals player could have said the same about him; and (3) guys just don't call out guys publicly like that.

However, Strasburg was underscoring a point that might need to be repeated a few thousand times in the next year or so: Bryce Harper is not Stephen Strasburg.

You know the hype machine will go into overdrive now that Washington has the two most touted prospects of the past 10 years. The Nationals will face the same scrutiny over Harper they faced over Strasburg. How good can he be? When will he come up? And, finally, the traditional musical question GM Mike Rizzo will hear in his sleep: What's taking so damned long?

Strasburg was a ready-made big league talent by the time he left San Diego State. You watch him now and realize just how rare he is. I watched him pitch in person against BYU in the spring of '09, and a scouting director looked at me after Strasburg followed a 100 mph fastball with a savage breaking ball and said, "They won't hit that in the big leagues, either. Stuff is stuff."

Strasburg also paid his dues. He came out of high school overweight and undermotivated. He worked as hard as humanly possible to honor his talent, and just because it happened quickly doesn't make it any less noble.

After three years of college, Strasburg was a lot closer in temperament and baseball savvy to those guys in the clubhouse than he was to Harper.

[+] EnlargeStephen Strasburg
Kyle Terada/US PresswireBefore signing with the Nationals, Stephen Strasburg faced higher level competition and had more time to mature than Bryce Harper.

Harper was on the field along with the other Golden Spikes Award finalists for batting practice at the All-Star Game in Anaheim, Calif., and while most of the guys were walking around wide-eyed, holding cameras, he was talking to players with the assurance better suited to a guy who was in uniform. He might end up there sooner rather than later, but it was another example of what the guys in the clubhouse saw when they were huddled around the computer.

(By the way, Harper won the Golden Spikes Award, which was a misguided choice. College baseball's highest award should go to a player at the highest level of college baseball. A junior college player winning the award is weak, no matter how good he is. Harper is by all accounts a once-a-decade talent, but he wouldn't have amassed the same ridiculous stats in the Pac-10 or the SEC. How about we give a junior college quarterback the Heisman or a Division III point guard the Wooden Award? Imagine that.)

Harper is billed as Baseball LeBron. He might turn out to be the next Chipper Jones -- or better -- but he's also a 17-year-old kid whose talents have been showcased for the best possible exposure since he was old enough to pick up a bat. He skipped his final two years of high school to get his GED and enter junior college so as to get drafted a year earlier than otherwise allowed.

Ten million bucks or not, that's simply not a normal upbringing. And although there's plenty of reason to assume he's going to be as good as advertised -- exactly like Strasburg -- there's just as much reason to suggest caution.

Now that a lifetime of acceleration has reaped its first reward, a little slowdown might be the best idea.

ESPN The Magazine senior writer Tim Keown co-wrote Josh Hamilton's autobiography, "Beyond Belief: Finding the Strength to Come Back," which is available on Amazon.com. Sound off to Tim here.

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Tim Keown | email

Senior writer, ESPN.com

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