Nats likely to take Harper with No. 1 pick

With baseball’s First-Year Player Draft still almost two months away, the perception in some circles around the game is the Nationals won’t have as easy a choice with the No. 1 pick this season as they did last year, when they took right-hander Stephen Strasburg first overall.

That’s not how the Nationals are approaching it.

Barring an injury or a drastic change, the Nationals will likely take 17-year-old catcher Bryce Harper with the first pick in the June Draft. According to a source familiar with the situation, they see Harper as being head and shoulders above anyone else in the 2010 draft class and believe he could reach the majors within 2 1/2 years.

Harper, who has been called “the LeBron James of baseball,” completed his GED in December 2009 so he could play junior-college baseball and be eligible for the 2010 draft, rather than finish high school. He is currently playing at the College of Southern Nevada, where he is batting .422 with a .516 on-base percentage, .891 slugging percentage, 15 homers and 42 RBI in 39 games.

The Nationals are pleased with Harper’s arrangement, as it makes him easier to scout than he would be if he was in high school. He is already playing with a wood bat, and the junior-college level of competition is higher than what he’d face in high school. What’s more, Harper is getting pitched to at Southern Nevada, where most high school teams would pitch around him.

Washington has scouted Harper for the last several years, though its top executives have not watched the 6-foot-3 catcher play yet. The Nationals believe he is as surefire a talent as Jayson Heyward, the outfielder selected by the Atlanta Braves out of high school in 2007 who is starting his rookie year with the team.

According to the source, the Nationals will take the best player available, and the decision is almost as cut-and-dried as last year’s decision to take Strasburg.

Harper’s advisor, Scott Boras, got Strasburg the richest deal ever given to a draft pick last summer, when he agreed to a four-year, $15.1 million deal with Strasburg just before the Aug. 17 deadline. Boras has said he does not consider Harper to be in the same class as Strasburg, though many scouts see him as a similarly rare talent. It’s likely negotations for Harper would be lengthy; the Nationals have not made detailed inquiries about his salary demands, but intend to sign him if they do indeed draft him.

General manager Mike Rizzo has historically preferred college players, but took high school shortstop Justin Upton with the first pick in the 2005 draft when he was with the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Harper, who also throws a 96-mph fastball, was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated last year, and could project at a number of different positions. He has become an Internet sensation after video surfaced of him hitting a 502-foot home run (albeit with an aluminum bat) at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla., last year.

If the Nationals take him, he could eventually pair with Strasburg to give the team two of the most highly-touted (and handsomely paid) prospects in the history of the draft. Right now, it appears that is what the team plans to do.