Somewhere around 7:05 p.m. tonight, the Nationals will select College of Southern Nevada catcher Bryce Harper as the first player taken in this year's draft. We'll immediately see clips of the 17-year-old blasting home runs, intimidating opponents with his warrior-paint eye black and getting ejected by an umpire for literally drawing a line in the sand during the Junior College World Series last week.
Like Stephen Strasburg one year ago, Harper's life is about to change. He's already as well-known as any No. 1 pick in baseball draft history, no small accomplishment considering how hyped Strasburg was last summer. Strasburg, of course, has yet to appear as the cover photo on Sports Illustrated. Harper has.
This is an exciting time for the Nationals and for Nats fans. To see Harper get drafted on Monday and Strasburg make his big-league debut on Tuesday? What a convergence of events.
Unfortunately, I'm here to douse the fire just a little bit. Because tonight's event is only the first step in what will be a very long process to get Harper to the major leagues. If you thought the 12-month wait for Strasburg was tough, you better be prepared to buckle up for a 3- or 4-year journey with Harper.
Before we can even consider when he'll reach the majors, Harper must first actually sign with the Nationals. We've gone through this process before. Strasburg (or more precisely, agent Scott Boras) made everyone wait until the final 90 seconds before last August's deadline to sign, and there's no reason to believe that timeline will be any different with Harper. The kid can say all he wants about his desire to play baseball. As long as Boras is calling the shots, this thing will go down to the wire.
Is there a chance Harper won't sign at all? Yes, but it's very slim. There's not a lot of motivation for him to turn down what surely will be a large contract offer from the Nationals, though probably not as large as the one Strasburg got. (It's tough to see a 17-year-old getting a guaranteed, major-league deal. It's more likely he'll get a big-time signing bonus but settle for a minor-league contract.) Harper certainly has leverage in that he can threaten to go back to school next year. But as several knowledgeable people have pointed out to me in the last couple months: You don't get your GED at 16 and enroll in a junior college conference that plays with wood bats just so you can hold out and go back to school for another season. You did this because you want to reach the big leagues as quickly as you possibly can.
So there's every reason to believe Harper will ultimately sign with the Nationals before midnight on Aug. 16. Just don't expect it to happen any earlier than that.
Once he's signed, Harper's trek to the majors will be a slow one. High school players -- and let's be honest, that's what he is; he should have been a high school junior this season -- don't reach the big leagues in one year. Generally speaking, neither do college players. Strasburg was an extreme case.
Assuming Harper signs in mid-August, look for him to do like Strasburg did and report to Viera to work out with the organization's rookie Gulf Coast League team with all the other 2010 draft picks who sign. He will probably open the 2011 season at low-Class A Hagerstown, perhaps getting bumped up to high-Class A Potomac in midseason.
You can do the math from there. 2012: Class AA Harrisburg. 2013: Class AAA Syracuse, then Washington in June, avoiding Super 2 status. Even that would be considered a fast track to the big leagues for someone of Harper's age. It's quite possible, maybe even likely, that he won't reach the big leagues until 2014 or 2015.
You've got to remember: This is a 17-year-old kid. He won't turn 18 until October. He was born two weeks before Bill Clinton was elected president. He wasn't alive the last time the Redskins won the Super Bowl. He was 8 years old on 9/11. When Livan Hernandez threw the first pitch at RFK Stadium in 2005, Bryce Harper was 12.
None of this is meant to dampen your excitement over the next 48 hours, because this truly is a unique couple of days for any baseball organization. The Nationals are at the center of the baseball world right now, and everyone should soak up this experience for all it's worth.
Just understand that, as has so often been the case with this franchise, patience will once again be a virtue.