by Paul Davis
Collectors know his name, even if they've never seen him play. They'll see plenty of Bryce Harper's face once 2011 Topps baseball products begin to materialize.
Harper, the #1 selection in the 2010 MLB draft by the Washington Nationals, has been called by scouts "more talented than Ken Griffey, Jr. or Alex Rodriguez at the same age." The 18-year old Las Vegas native has already accumulated quite a list of accomplishments in his young career, including the 2010 Golden Spikes award and the 2009 Baseball America High School Player of the Year.
A left-handed hitting catcher, Harper is 6'3" 225 lbs. and possesses incredible power, winning a home-run derby at Tropicana Field with a 502-foot blast. In 66 career games at the College of Southern Nevada (a junior college), he hit .443 with 31 homers and 98 RBI's. Scouting reports grade him at either plus or solid in every measurable category.
Signed to a five-year contract with the Nationals for reportedly just under $10 million, Harper made an immediate impact on the trading card industry when it was announced in October that Topps had inked the 18-year old to a multi-year deal. The agreement with Topps includes sole rights for the use of Harper's image on autographed cards and game-worn memorabilia as well as exclusive rights in advertising and packaging for Topps products. The deal essentially makes Harper the "face" of its' 2011 baseball product, the 60th anniversary for the company.
A Harper card in the 2010 Bowman Sterling Autographed set, limited to only 60 cards printed, recently sold on e-Bay for $690.
Harper participated in Washington's fall instructional league, batting .319, leading his squad in hits, walks, home runs and RBI's. He also played for Scottsdale in the Arizona Fall League where in 35 at-bats he batted .343 with 1 homer and 7 RBI's. A catcher for most of his career, Harper has played the outfield so far as a professional, and Washington is expected to try and keep him there.
"He’s a special talent," said Nationals' instructional league manager Matt LeCroy. "He brings that energy every day. It doesn’t matter if it’s six in the morning or six at night. He’s got a love for the game, a passion for the game.
Harper appears to be on the fast-track to the major leagues, and although he's not expected to start the season in a National's uniform, if he continues to progress as rapidly as he's given every indication of doing, a mid-season call-up wouldn't surprise most observers. Stephen Strasburg's much-hyped major league debut last June created a definite upsurge in collector/investor interest, and Harper's debut, whenever it occurs, will no doubt also cause a spike in the market.
For all of Harper's skills however, he is not without his detractors. The 18-year old passed up his junior and senior years of high school, opting to obtain a GED, making him eligible for the June 2010 draft. He enrolled in junior college at 16, and even though his on-field performance was beyond impressive, he also developed a reputation for being arrogant, a characteristic nearly every talent evaluator mentions in their assessment. Whether or not this quality is even a factor in projecting a prospect's future success is certainly subjective, with supporters bringing up players such as Ty Cobb and Pete Rose as examples.
The history of professional sports is loaded with "can't miss" phenoms who were eventually proven to lack the adequate psychological toughness to deal with the inevitable ups-and-downs of a pro career. Bryce Harper has already appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated and been the subject of an ESPN special before he turned 18. Only time will tell if he is indeed, the Next Great One.