By now, Bryce Harper has entered the nuts-and-bolts phase of his professional career, starting workouts with the Nationals' Gulf Coast League affiliate in Viera, Fla. From there, he'll play in the team's fall instructional league, possibly move on to the Arizona Fall League and get ready for spring training.
The Nationals' longer-term plan for Harper is less clear. They speak of wanting him to move quickly through the minors, but realistically, how quick can a 17-year-old be in the majors?
The other factor that could possibly complicate that is the issue that helped keep Stephen Strasburg in the minors until June this year: Super Two status. The provision, put in the collective bargaining agreement between owners and players, is designed to keep teams from reaping the benefits of an outstanding young player without that player getting into the arbitration system any quicker than he otherwise would. Under the current rule, the top 17 percent of players with more than two, but less than three, years of service time qualify for Super Two status, hitting arbitration a year early and seeing their salaries escalate from there.
Every rule has a loophole, though, and many teams have started stashing their best prospects in the minors for the first couple months of the season, until they can be sure enough other players have accumulated service time to push their player out of the top 17 percent. The Orioles did it with Matt Wieters; the Giants tried to do it with Tim Lincecum (though they miscalculated the date and brought him up a week early); and the Nationals did it with Strasburg - which turned out to be to their benefit with Strasburg accumulating service time on the disabled list all next year.
The question is, will the Nationals have to do it with Harper? Baseball's collective bargaining agreement is up after the 2011 World Series, and there's a chance owners and players will revise, or at least revisit, the Super Two provision. By the time the Nationals are ready to bring Harper to the majors, there could be a different set of rules in place. There have been rumblings around the game that management will try to change the Super Two process, especially with so many talented rookies in the game nowadays.
Maury Brown, the president of the Business of Sports Network and bizofbaseball.com, believes the topic will come up during bargaining for a new basic agreement between owners and players, but isn't sure how willing either side will be to come up with a new way of doing things.
"If memory serves, this was a give-back on some level. This was something the players' association got, and clawed for," Brown said. "This may be a bargaining chip for something. There's a list that everybody wants. For the players to give up Super Two would mean some form of concession, maybe someplace else. I don't think they're going to give this up wholeheartedly."
Industry sources have long though one of the reasons Harper went to all the trouble he did to enter the draft early (getting his GED, playing junior college ball at 17) was to arrive before the next CBA. That could insulate him from a new Super Two arrangement, if players drafted before the new CBA were still allowed to obtain Super Two status, but it would also mean the Nationals likely doing with him what they did with Strasburg, keeping him in the minors until June in whichever year they feel he's ready to come to the majors.
"If the players' association says, 'No, we're not going to go there at all,' one way you could lessen the blow would be a grandfathering system," Brown said. "That might be one way to do it. If you have a five-year CBA, toward the end of it, you would see (a new) Super Two."
Another issue related to Harper and Strasburg, which Nationals president Stan Kasten has railed against, is baseball's current method of compensating draft picks. The soft slotting system, which gives teams and players guidelines for what type of bonus a player should get based on where he was taken, is all but ignored, especially at the top of the draft, and players rumored to be "signability risks" slide down the draft because lower-revenue teams are loathe to pay them big bonuses.
It also leads to the beat-the-clock nature of negotiations like the Nationals did with Harper and Strasburg, agreeing with both players seconds before the mid-August deadline to lock up draft picks. With both sides not wanting to give in early, and the commissioner's office silently imploring teams to delay agreements, so as not to set the market for other players, top picks sit for two months that they could use to develop in the minors.
"I think the slotting system is more of an issue. It seems to be the topic that's had more discussion out of management, whether it's been Stan or whether it's been somebody else," Brown said. "It does place the onus on teams that, more often than not, don't have a lot of revenue. The Pirates, the Royals, it's been those teams. They're under more pressure when a player like Strasburg or a player like Bryce Harper comes along."
Brown believes management will push hard for a slotting system more like what's in place in the NBA, where rookie contracts are relatively inflexible. A change in Super Two status, then, could come about as a bargaining chip for owners to corral rookie bonuses.
He also believes an international draft will likely be included in the next CBA; the two sides nearly agreed to one at the end of collective bargaining in 2002, only to toss the issue aside in an effort to get a deal done.
"(Union president) Michael Weiner has told me it's a matter of logistics. Both sides, I think, want to have an international draft," Brown said. "I think they have enough of a starting point to try and make it happen. I don't think Michael Weiner would say, 'We want to make it happen; it's a matter of logistics,' if they didn't want it. My gut tells me they can probably do it."