Only a sophomore, Harper has scouts buzzing about the future

The Tampa Bay Rays had yet to begin their 2009 season, but Tropicana Field was already abuzz in January thanks to the International Power Showcase High School Home Run Derby.

Check out highlights of Harper's home runs on YouTube.

It wasn't so much the event itself that caused the excitement. Rather, one participant provided all the electricity. Everyone wanted to see how far the next big thing in high school baseball could crush each pitch.

Las Vegas High sophomore catcher Bryce Harper answered with a staggering 502-foot shot he deposited deep into the outfield stands. It was the longest home run ever hit at the Trop. Granted, it was with a metal bat, but 502 feet is 502 feet. It doesn't matter if you're on the moon.

The shot impressed even the low-key Harper.

"I looked up and I was like, 'Wow, I can't believe I did that,'" he said.

A lot of what Harper does on the diamond seems far-fetched, but trust us -- the kid is for real. At 6-foot-3, 205-pounds, Harper is arguably the nation's top prospect, regardless of class.

With the dearth of top catching prospects in baseball, teams already eye the 2011 MLB Draft as the chance to select Harper, who's earmarked as the No. 1 pick that year.

"If he was in the minors now, he'd be one of the Top 10 prospects in the game," said Scouts Inc. senior baseball analyst Keith Law, a former special assistant to the general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays.

Harper, who bats lefty, can hit for power and average. He also has a cannon for an arm and speed that makes him a threat on the basepaths.

"There's really no comparison because he's really unique," said Las Vegas coach Sam Thomas.

Harper has been a well-known commodity since before he even entered high school. When he suited up for Las Vegas, he lived up to the hype immediately by batting .590 with 11 homers, 67 RBIs and 36 stolen bases in 38 games as a freshman.

OK, but that's high school baseball. So what can he do against elite international competition?

Well last summer, he earned tournament MVP honors after leading the USA Baseball 16U National Team to the gold medal at the COPABE "AA" Youth Pan American Championships. In eight games, Harper hit .571 and led all players in homers (4) and RBIs (16).

By the time spring rolled around this year, opposing pitchers had started avoiding Harper as if he were Albert Pujols. Regardless, Harper has still thrived this spring. As of May 5, he was hitting .637 with six homers, 35 RBIs.

Harper has also managed to strike fear into his own team. Thomas coaches first base for the Wildcats and during one game this year, Harper blasted a one-hopper off his coach's leg. Let's just say Thomas is a bit more aware when Harper comes up to bat these days.

"It stung for about three days," Thomas says.

If Harper continues at this pace, the mega-watt spotlight already on him will shine even brighter. Scouts already track his progress daily and autograph seekers besiege him before every game.

Harper says bring it on.

"I love the spotlight being on me, having the target on my back," he says. "I want to play in the big leagues, I want to work harder than everyone and I want to be better than anybody who's ever played the game. I want to be the best."

The goals may be lofty, but Harper already proved that nothing is out of his reach back in January.

Jon Mahoney covers high school sports for ESPN RISE Magazine.