Final steps of Harper negotiations a test for Nats

We’ve reached the final day of the window for teams to sign their 2010 draft picks - the point at which any posturing from either the Nationals or Scott Boras over Bryce Harper carries almost no weight. By midnight, we’ll know if Harper is going to be a handsomely-paid member of the Nationals’ organization, as almost everyone in baseball suspects, or if he will spurn the team and go back to school.

The belief among baseball people is so strong that Harper will sign that at this point, it would seemingly register a bigger shock than if Stephen Strasburg had turned them down last year.

There are a couple reasons for that. First, Harper took the unprecedented step of getting his GED and enrolling at a junior college to be draft-eligible a year earlier than he otherwise would have been. Why do all that just to give back the extra year and go back to school, especially when you could slip in next year’s draft over signability concerns?

There’s also the matter of a new collective bargaining agreement, which is expected to bring widespread changes to the First-Year Player Draft by 2012, including a bonus slotting system less favorable to top-end players like Harper. It’s unlikely that will curtail spending on the 2011 draft, but there’s a chance teams will be less interested in paying big money for their picks next year if it means giving up some rhetorical leverage in CBA negotiations.

The Nationals also gave Strasburg, a Boras client, more money than any pick in the history of the draft, and developed as productive a working relationship with the superagent as there is in baseball. They’ve proved they’ll pay for their picks, erasing the sting of not signing Aaron Crow in 2008 and putting out a new image around the game.

But let’s put all that aside for a minute to entertain the other side of things: What if Harper and Boras say no?

From a baseball standpoint, the immediate effect wouldn’t be as great as if Strasburg had turned them down. Harper isn’t expected to be ready for the majors until possibly 2013, and the Nationals have other outfield prospects in their system they hope will be up before then - Michael Burgess and Destin Hood, to name two.

Harper’s prodigious power, though, seems to make him a rare specimen. If he can translate that to the majors - and does so with another team - it could come back to look like one of the great blunders in baseball to lose him over some late-night haggling. The Nationals have also shed their reputation as baseball’s resident klutz, which never looked more fitting than when they couldn’t sign Crow. Things worked out OK there; Crow is struggling in A ball for the Royals, while Drew Storen (the next year’s compensation pick) is entrenched in the Nationals’ bullpen already. But the sting at the time was real, and the one from not signing Harper would be greater.

There’s little reason to expect a deal won’t get done. Both sides seemingly have too much to gain by agreeing. But if by some chance, the Nationals don’t get their man tonight, they’ll once again have to work overtime to make people believe they’re headed in the right direction.