[Editor's note: This story was updated.]
Washington Nationals prospect Bryce Harper blew a kiss to an opposing pitcher after homering in the sixth inning of a minor league game Monday evening, sending scores of baseball elder statesmen rushing to microphones across the country to chide Harper’s temerity. Hall of Fame third basement Mike Schmidt groused to ESPN, for example, that Harper would have set off a bench-clearing brawl with the same antics in a Major League game.
With a $9.9 million contract and nicknames from “The Natural” (as in Robert Redford’s divinely talented 1984 silver screen hero) to “LeBryce” (in the vein of fellow athletic wunderkind LeBron James), it’s easy to see how the 18-year-old slugger has pressure to act out. But with the way Harper has been punishing minor league pitching and the effect he’s had on the Hagerstown Suns organization, it points strongly toward one conclusion: the kid from Las Vegas is worth every dime.
First, while Harper has shown bouts of immaturity, many have noted his humility and willingness to be an absolute team player.
Suns owner Bruce Quinn noted that in terms of “off-the-field behavior and demeanor, he’s learning, he’s a young kid. But I get kind of get aggravated when I hear people say things like: 'He’s not signing autographs. I haven’t seen him walk past a kid [looking for a signature] – ever. That’s the reality.”
As ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick recently reported, Harper takes pains to sign plenty of autographs and has made himself at home on the roster even with his clear fast track to the big leagues. That’s not to mention the ribbing Harper gets at every stop: At a recent game in New Jersey, fans got a 20 percent voucher for the local International House of Pancakes if Harper went down on strikes. And that’s the kind part -- the part that doesn’t involve being the only recognizable player in minor league ballparks where the jeers from the cheap seats can be easily heard.
What kind of production is that $10 million buying the Nationals? Simply put, Harper is punishing Class A pitching. He’s tied for the South Atlantic League (SAL) lead in homeruns with 14 despite nearly 20 fewer plate appearances than fellow slugger Adam Duvall of the Augusta GreenJackets. He’s also sixth in the league in average at .342, tied for third in RBIswith 42, and fourth in slugging percentage at .623. While Harper isn’t facing major league pitching, consider that the Chicago Cubs are paying second baseman/outfielder Alfonso Soriano $19 million this year for his 12 home runs and .271 average.
On a team level, you couldn’t ask for much more: the Suns are 35-23, the SAL’s best record and 1.5 games ahead of the Greensboro Grasshoppers in the league’s northern division.
That production only adds to Harper’s supernova star power, which, according to Mr. Quinn, has not only been a boon to the Suns but to the parent Nationals as well. Quinn notes that Hagerstown, a city in northwestern Maryland roughly 70 miles from both the Baltimore Orioles’ home in Camden Yards and Nationals’ Park in Washington, D.C., was once a town of split baseball allegiances. No longer, he believes.
The locals “have a bond with Bryce Harper and it will continue through to the Major Leagues. The Nationals have picked up a key stronghold here in Hagerstown,” he said. Even after Harper moves on, “he’ll leave a fingerprint here in Hagerstown and the biggest benefactor is going to be the Washington Nationals.”
That said, it isn’t as if Harper has been hurting the Suns’ ticket sales. Attendance is ahead of last year’s pace and “when we go on the road, we’re selling those venues out, too,” Quinn said. That’s in addition to all the Harper merchandise flying off the shelves for as much as $200 for a replica jersey or $27 for a T-shirt bearing Harper’s number.
Those looking to ascertain Harper’s value might also consider 2009’s top pick, Stephen Strasburg. Strasburg, a towering strikeout maestro from San Diego State University, inked a deal even bigger than Harper’s when he was drafted by the National’s – $15.1 million over four years.
Unfortunately, after blazing his way into the greater Washington, D.C., area’s sports conscience with a transcendent 14-strikeout debut against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Strasburg was laid low by an injury requiring 12 to 18 months of rehabilitation. While Strasburg proved he could handle Major League hitters, injuries to young pitchers can leave even some of the game’s top hurlers – like the Cubs Mark Prior, among others – without the juice that made them great.
Unlike pitchers and Harper’s former position, catcher, outfielders just don’t have the same risk.
All in all, just under $10 million for the first four years of LeBryce’s career doesn’t look too shabby. Especially if he works out like his idol – Harper wears 34 because the numbers add up to seven, the number of Yankee great Mickey Mantle.