Bryce Harper might want to slather on another dollop of eye black: He has one more stare-down on his agenda.
It's been more than two months since the Washington Nationals selected Harper, a catcher from the College of Southern Nevada, with the No. 1 pick in Major League Baseball's first-year player draft. Now it's time for them to make their final push and bring him into the fold.
Harper, 17, has until Monday at midnight ET to agree to terms on a contract. Once that happens, he can don a Nationals jersey at his welcome-to-Washington news conference, go wherever the organization chooses to send him and try to prove that those Larry Walker comparisons are legitimate.
In the unlikely event that no agreement is reached, Harper will re-enter the draft pool in 2011 and do it all over again next spring.
Washington general manager Mike Rizzo and Harper's adviser, Scott Boras, didn't return phone calls seeking comment. But several baseball executives and scouting directors, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because of concerns about tampering, said they expect Harper to sign with the Nationals for a variety of reasons:
• Harper hit .443 with 31 homers and 98 RBIs at Southern Nevada and became only the second junior college player in 33 years to win the Golden Spikes Award as the top amateur player in the nation. He has nothing left to prove by a return to the Scenic West Athletic Conference.
• While the 2010 draft crop was not considered a strong one, draft experts rate the 2011 talent pool as one of the deepest in years. It's no lock that Harper will go first next June, and if he suffers an injury or his performance dips, he could fall considerably lower than that.
• Rizzo and Boras have a track record of harmonious dealings in the draft. Rizzo drafted and signed Boras advisees Stephen Drew and Max Scherzer during his tenure as Arizona Diamondbacks scouting director, and Boras negotiated a record $15.1 million deal for pitcher Stephen Strasburg with Washington last August. The familiarity factor can only help as decision time approaches and the tension mounts.
The deadline wasn't as cut-and-dried before 2007, when a big league team retained a player's rights until the next year's draft or he attended class at a four-year college in the fall. The introduction of a mid-August deadline was meant to bring matters to a head more quickly and give both sides a more stable target. But all it's done is produce one big, chaotic flurry of signings, as teams and player agents, or "advisers,'' try to use the time crunch to maximum advantage.
"The game of chicken that we're all moving towards playing on Monday night isn't very much fun,'' said a National League executive.
Of the 32 players selected in the first round of the 2010 draft, 17 are unsigned. The list includes the second pick, Pittsburgh's Jameson Taillon, the third overall choice, Baltimore's Manny Machado, and nine of the top 12 selections.
Baseball executives generally attribute the slow going to the tactics of agents, who enhance their clients' leverage by pushing the deadline to the final hours and are hesitant to commit to an agreement too early and have it upstaged by a competitor's more lucrative deal lower in the draft.
"For the agents, it's all about future recruitment,'' said an NL scouting director. "They don't want their numbers not to stand up in the marketplace.''
But the process is a two-way street. Each year, the commissioner's office gives teams a recommended bonus figure for each slot in the draft. Teams can't "go over slot'' without informing the commissioner's office, a prospect that general managers and owners find unappealing.
If clubs choose to stand their ground and pay more than MLB prefers, they're advised to wait as long as possible to make a formal offer or announce the signing. According to one baseball official, that allows a high contract number to inflict the "the least possible damage'' on other clubs still in the midst of negotiations.
On Thursday, Baseball America's Jim Callis reported that the Texas Rangers have agreed to terms with University of Miami recruit Luke Jackson for $1.557 million -- more than double the recommended bonus of $764,000 for the 45th slot in the draft. Even though Jackson traveled to Texas for a physical exam this week, Rangers general manager Jon Daniels quickly denied that a deal was in place.
Another point of consideration this summer is the looming specter of a change in draft rules. Although MLB clubs have tried to put a lid on bonuses, overall draft spending increased from $155 million to $187 million to $197 million from 2007 to 2009. Baseball's labor agreement expires in 2011 and most industry observers expect owners to push for a more rigid slotting system similar to the ones used in the NBA and NHL.
In its public comments, the commissioner's office has focused on equity in the draft rather than dollars and cents.
"The draft has been the subject of considerable internal discussion,'' Rob Manfred, MLB's executive vice president of labor relations, told ESPN.com. "Sometimes people think the discussion is centered on economics, or whether we're spending too much money. To be honest, the economics are really secondary to the question of, 'Is the weakest club getting a chance to get the best player?'''
If changes are, indeed, in store, it will force some picks to make a big decision. Taillon, a high school pitcher from suburban Houston, has a scholarship from Rice to use as leverage in his discussions with Pittsburgh. But if Taillon spurns the Pirates' offer for college, he won't be eligible to re-enter the draft until 2013. It's possible that a new, more restrictive bonus system will be in place by then.
There are also rumblings about pushing the deadline up to mid-July, a move that would achieve two purposes: 1) It would allow teams to sign draft picks early enough to get them out playing; and: 2) it might lessen the influence of colleges, who can use the extra time each summer to ramp up their sales pitch.
"Some clubs might want to wait until Aug. 16 when all hell breaks loose, and they can sign kids over slot and be under the radar screen,'' said an NL front-office man. "But that gives the colleges a nice advantage to continue the recruiting process. While teams are dragging their feet, a kid goes to orientation and says, 'You know what? There are a lot of good-looking girls on campus and the football schedule is out. This is good. I'm going to commit to college.'''
From all indications, Boras and the Nationals hadn't engaged in many substantive negotiations entering the weekend, and they've been adept at keeping Harper's name out of the news. One strange, somewhat amusing interlude occurred recently when a Facebook page purportedly in Harper's name hinted that he was prepared to return to Southern Nevada for another season.
"Probably going back to CSN to try to win a National Championship!!!'' read one of the posts, its breathlessness signified by three exclamation points. But subsequent reports questioned whether the comments were, indeed, posted by Harper.
Tim Chambers, Harper's Southern Nevada coach, made some comments last week that suggested Harper is eager to sign. He told MASN's Byron Kerr that Harper, an acknowledged "baseball rat,'' has bulked up from 208 to 225 pounds and is "begging to play.''
Chambers, who recently took the head coaching coach at UNLV, didn't return a call from ESPN.com.
Although Boras has generally refrained from public comment, he surfaced in late July to extol the virtues of Harper as a major league prospect. "He's a legend in my mind,'' Boras told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. "I've never seen a young man with that kind of power.''
One baseball executive said he expects Harper to sign a deal not too far north of the $6 million contract that first baseman Eric Hosmer signed with Kansas City in 2008. But Hosmer was the No. 3 overall pick in the draft, and that was two years ago. Most industry estimates have placed Harper's prospective bonus in the $10 million to $11 million range.
Strasburg was close to major league ready when Washington picked him out of San Diego State in June 2009. Harper is considerably younger and will be making the transition from catcher to outfield, and the consensus is that he'll need at least three years of seasoning in the minors before he's ready for his major league debut. That said, his talent makes baseball personnel people gush.
"He's got a chance to be a great offensive player,'' said a scouting director. "I think for two years in a row, Washington absolutely got the best player in the draft.''
Now all that's left is for the Nationals to sign him.