Could Harper be derailed on fast track?
So, will we now see scores of 16-year-old kids rushing to emulate Bryce Harper, the Nevada teenager and Sports Illustrated cover boy who plans to forgo his last two years of high school to become eligible for the baseball draft next June?
“I have always said,” Roy Clark, the veteran scouting director for the Atlanta Braves, wrote Tuesday in an email, “that no matter the ability a kid has at an early age, until he gets past that first driver’s license and first kiss, you don’t know how they will respond.”
Clark has seen Harper play, but does not know him personally. “He’s got a chance to be special, ability-wise,” he said.
He doesn’t have issues with Harper’s plan to earn his GED, enroll in junior college with his older brother and prepare for next year’s draft under the guidance of uber-agent Scott Boras. From a baseball standpoint, he probably wasn’t going to benefit from playing for his high school team.
“Unfortunately,” Clark said, “when a kid is this good, opposing coaches won’t pitch to him, anyway.”
And besides, Clark said, Harper is “definitely the rare exception.”
Another National League scouting director, who asked that his name not be used because he didn’t want to provide Boras with more promotional material, has seen Harper on numerous occasions. This is what he says:
“I scouted A-Rod, Chipper Jones(notes), Manny [Ramirez], all those guys in high school. God was very, very good to this kid. He’s stronger than they all were in high school. Never mind next year. If he’d been in the draft this year, he would have gone very, very high. You just don’t see a kid that age that advanced physically, with that strength.”
But you already knew that. Harper is already being called baseball’s LeBron James. But is rushing him along dangerous?
“If it was my son, would I do that?” the scouting director said. “No, I’d want him to be a kid. It’s the parents’ decision, they’re going in it with their eyes wide open, but I hope we don’t start seeing three, four, five kids a year thinking they can do this.”
Gary Hughes, who has scouted for decades and now is a special assistant to Cubs GM Jim Hendry, has stronger feelings on Harper fast-forwarding his career.
“Why?” he said. “Why not just be a kid? I think it’s sad what’s happening. Traveling squads for little kids, parents paying up to a thousand bucks for a weekend. I have a 10-year-old grandson who is a closer. A closer. I know one family where the parents are assessed 45 bucks per kid – they have two kids – for a session with a strength and conditioning coach. They’re 9 years old. I know it’s happening in all sports, but it’s pathetic.”
It appears unlikely baseball will challenge Harper’s right to come out early, not when the industry is signing 16 year-olds in foreign countries, especially from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. Hughes argues that it’s not a fair comparison. In the Dominican Republic, the majority of players don’t have the educational opportunities or career options available in the U.S. And the Dominican players who sign at 16 spend years at baseball academies on the island until they are physically and mentally ready to start climbing through the farm systems in the U.S.
“Eventually, these kids are going to have to get out in the world,” Hughes said. “If [Harper] does become the Babe Ruth or Mickey Mantle, great, then he doesn’t have to worry. But what if he doesn’t? There’s only one Babe Ruth or Mickey Mantle.”
Even if he flops, Harper will at least have something to fall back on: the multimillion-dollar bonus he is certain to receive upon being drafted. Finishing his education will always be an option.
“He’s very impressive, no question,” Hughes said. “But he’s 16. He’s just out of the Babe Ruth League All-Star game, and now this? I think it’s ridiculous. Yes, this kid is physically advanced, but let him at least go to a [school dance].”
Deal or no deal: With Hanley Ramirez and the Florida Marlins in Boston this week, there has been talk about which club got the better of the Thanksgiving Day 2005 deal that sent Ramirez and three pitchers to Florida for Josh Beckett, Mike Lowell(notes) and Guillermo Mota(notes). Adding spice to the debate is the fact that Theo Epstein was on hiatus as Red Sox general manager at the time and almost certainly would not have made the deal. And Red Sox owner John W. Henry wasn’t keen on making the trade, expressing a preference for signing A.J. Burnett(notes), a free agent at the time.
Ramirez, 25, achieved instant stardom with the Marlins, winning the Rookie of the Year award in 2006, finishing fifth in the league in hitting with a .332 average his second season, and becoming an All-Star in 2008. He entered the Red Sox series batting .330 and is widely considered among the top three young players in the National League.
The Red Sox, meanwhile, won the World Series in 2007, with Beckett and Lowell playing starring roles in the postseason. Lowell was World Series MVP; Beckett became a 20-game winner for the first time in his career, then won all four of his postseason starts. Beckett remains the staff ace, with Boston holding a $12 million option on 2010. Lowell, 35, had hip surgery after last season and was expected to be traded if Boston had succeeded in signing Mark Teixeira(notes). Teixeira, of course, elected to go with the Yankees, and Lowell rebounded to rank second on the club with 41 RBIs entering play Tuesday.
Bill Lajoie was a senior adviser with the Red Sox at the time. He and another top aide, Craig Shipley, were the primary architects of the Ramirez/Beckett/Lowell deal, with Shipley doing most of the face-to-face negotiating with Marlins officials. Lajoie, now an adviser with the Pirates, has little patience for any second-guessing.
“People say Theo liked Hanley?” Lajoie said. “[Dustin] Pedroia was promoted ahead of Hanley. That was Theo. Hanley repeated classifications. [Farm director] Ben Cherington sent Hanley home at one point for disciplinary reasons. People recognized Hanley had ability, but there were questions.”
Ramirez actually made it to Double-A faster than Pedroia, arriving at the end of the 2004 season. They both began 2005 in Double-A, but Pedroia was promoted to Triple-A later that season. Pedroia was older, drafted out of college and more polished than Ramirez, but there is no doubt that Epstein rated Ramirez highly.
Florida received three pitchers with Ramirez, and none have developed as hoped. The best is Anibal Sanchez(notes), who threw a no-hitter in 2006 and cracked the rotation in 2007. But shoulder surgery sidelined him for much of last season and he’s on the DL with more shoulder misery this season. The Marlins let go of the other pitchers in the deal, Jesus Delgado(notes) and Harvey Garcia(notes), in March.
Wang moment in time: The Yankees have remained baffled at why Chien-Ming Wang(notes) hasn’t regained the form that made him a 19-game winner in both 2006 and 2007 before injuries sidelined him last season. Here are the observations of statistical analyst Ari Kaplan of Ariball.com:
• Wang’s arm slots are consistent within games, but not from game to game. Starting mid-April, his arm slot for all of his pitches has dropped over a half a foot, from a high of 6 feet, 6 inches off the ground to only 6 feet, 1 inch in his last start.
• The velocity on all his pitches increased from April through May. His slider, for example, increased from an average of 83 mph to 85. The combination of dropping arm slot and increasing velocity can indicate control and mechanical issues.
• Wang got ahead in the count 65 percent of the time in April, but only 46 in May.
• Wang has been throwing sliders three times as often since mid-April, while relying much less on his splitter.
• Since mid-April, Wang has allowed groundballs nearly three times as often – and many are turning into singles. Interestingly, he has allowed only one-third as many line drives in May as in April, an indication a change in fortunes might be coming.
Fungo hitting: The Manny Acta firing watch took on an air of inevitability a couple of weeks ago when the Nationals let go pitching coach Randy St. Claire, who had been with the organization for seven seasons (including its Montreal incarnation). When the 40-year-old Acta does get fired and replaced by bench coach Jim Riggleman – and no one should have to twist in the wind like this – he should have no problem finding another job. He began with the Houston Astros, who signed him as a player, groomed him for his post-playing career, and probably would welcome him back in some capacity. … The Pirates are taking heat for selecting Boston College catcher Tony Sanchez with the fourth pick of the draft. Their critics say the pick was made because Sanchez would be easily signed. That impression was reinforced when Sanchez signed almost immediately for a $2.5 million bonus. But baseball sources said the Pirates took Sanchez because of his catching skills and because they believe he and first pick Stephen Strasburg were the players closest to being major-league ready. “He has a little flaw in his throwing action, but it’s minor,” one scout said. “People say he’s not going to hit, but who really knows? He’s a good player. Tell me which one of those high school pitchers who were drafted in the first round are going to be Nolan Ryan.” … Dustin Ackley, who was picked second overall by the Mariners, had five hits for North Carolina against Southern Mississippi on Tuesday night and now has 27 career hits in the College World Series, a record. Ackley, who the Pirates say they hoped would slide to them, is expected to play the outfield in the pros. … Rangers president Nolan Ryan is expected to be part of a new ownership group bidding to buy the club from Tom Hicks. … The Cardinals aren’t interested in Miguel Tejada(notes), but are looking for offensive help at third base or in the outfield. … The Nationals have let it be known they’d move young outfielders Elijah Dukes(notes) and Lastings Milledge(notes). The only untouchable on the roster appears to be third baseman Ryan Zimmerman(notes). … Add the Rangers to the list of teams that may have interest in Washington first baseman Nick Johnson(notes). … With Carlos Guillen(notes) debating whether he needs season-ending shoulder surgery, the Tigers are actively seeking an offensive upgrade. … With the Indians foundering, there is speculation that this will be the year GM Mark Shapiro will be elevated to club president, with top aide Chris Antonetti being promoted to GM. One rumor has it happening at the All-Star break, but word out of Cleveland is that no change will be made during the season. … It was a delicious case of immovable object vs. irresistible force when the Tigers met the Cardinals in interleague play Tuesday night. Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander(notes) entered the game without having allowed a home run to a right-handed batter in 138 at-bats this season; in the Cardinals lineup, meanwhile, was Albert Pujols(notes), who entered the game with the highest slugging percentage of any right-handed batter in history, .627 (minimum 3,000 plate appearances). Hometown Cardinal fans were not disappointed as Pujols hit his fifth home run in five games and the longest this season at Busch Stadium (446 feet). But the home run came off reliever Ryan Perry(notes), as Verlander, who had won his last seven decisions with a 1.10 ERA in his previous nine starts, walked Pujols intentionally twice before striking him out in the fourth. The last right-handed batter to take Verlander deep was Alexei Ramirez(notes) of the White Sox on Sept. 14. … While his famous father has remained in the background, Koby Clemens has persevered in pursuing his career. He’s playing for the Astros’ Class A farm team in Lancaster in the California League, where he began play Tuesday night hitting .311, with an OPS of .872. Lancaster with its ferocious winds is a launching pad, but Koby has just two home runs. The Astros still haven’t decided what is the best position for the young Clemens. They’ll probably make a decision after the season whether to keep him at catcher. He’s also played third base. “He’s a mentally tough kid,” one Astros official said. “His bat is his best tool, and he’s a kid who always works at it. And he’s handled the situation with his dad with great class, which is why his teammates have respected him. Koby and his dad have a special relationship, and have remained close.”