06/09/10 2:15 AM ET
On rise, Harper can learn from Strasburg
No. 1 pick enters spotlight similar to that of future mate
By Jeff Seidel / Special to MLB.com
The Washington Nationals made Harper the No. 1 pick in this season's First-Year Player Draft on Monday, 363 days after they selected Strasburg as the first pick overall in 2009. Strasburg made his Major League debut on Tuesday night, but the right-hander might have set the bar pretty high for Harper by putting up a spectacular 14-strikeout performance in a 5-2 victory over the Pirates before a sellout crowd of 40,315 at Nationals Park.
Strasburg gave up just two runs on four hits in seven innings. He fanned those 14 batters on just 94 pitches and didn't walk anyone. The crowd gave him two standing ovations before the big right-hander even threw a pitch and was absolutely delirious whenever Strasburg recorded a strikeout.
"I just thought he was making all of his pitches," said Washington manager Jim Riggleman. "It was just a great night for baseball in Washington."
The Nationals are hoping to have more great nights like this with Strasburg, and many down the road with Harper. It will likely take Harper longer to reach the Nationals because he's a position player, but there's no question that Washington has probably gotten two big building blocks for its franchise.
Washington found success with a first-round pick when it took Ryan Zimmerman in 2005, when the former University of Virginia star was the fourth selection overall. Zimmerman joined the Nationals on Sept. 1 of that season and became a starter -- a role he's kept ever since.
But the No. 1 pick in the Draft is something different -- it's reserved for someone special. He's the player whom fans and team officials expect to be a star, someone who can do special things and help the team in extraordinary ways.
For example, when the Nationals picked Strasburg last year, fans were clamoring for him to come to the Major Leagues right away. He'd had plenty of college experience and had to be ready, they thought.
General manager Mike Rizzo and the Nationals politely disagreed.
"It's a process you can't rush," Rizzo said that night. "Some players advance quicker than others. But there's always a learning curve."
Strasburg didn't seem to have much of a learning curve. He pitched very well in the Arizona Fall League last year after signing with the Nats and really took off upon entering the Minors this season.
The 6-foot-4, 220-pound right-hander posted a 7-2 record with a 1.30 ERA in 11 starts at Double-A Harrisburg and Triple-A Syracuse, dominant all the way, before Washington called him up for Tuesday's start.
He certainly didn't disappoint. Strasburg got stronger as the game went on and struck out the final seven batters he faced, posting the second-highest total of strikeouts in history by a pitcher making his Major League debut.
"I thought I was going to be a lot more nervous than I was," Strasburg said. "Once they said, 'Play ball,' it was go time."
Many Nationals fans were actually wringing their hands last summer due to protracted contract negotiations between agent Scott Boras and the club, which stretched out for longer than two months. In fact, Strasburg signed with the Nationals at 11:58:43 p.m. ET last Aug. 16 -- just 77 seconds before the deadline. Harper likely won't be in the Majors as quickly, if he even signs. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound catcher/outfielder hit.443 for the College of Southern Nevada this season and is only 17 years old.
Harper's numbers are staggering -- especially at the plate -- in a similar way to Strasburg's on the mound at San Diego State. But young position players have to go through a tougher learning curve than a pitcher with solid college experience.
"I think it will be a little different path," said Washington infielder Adam Kennedy."[Strasburg] is pretty much ready out of college, and you're talking about a three- or four-year age difference, which is huge, and hitting is a lot different. There will definitely be some different road blocks for Harper along the way."
Riggleman is a big fan of pitching and said that Strasburg's coming to the Major Leagues is an exciting moment. Riggleman also said that Harper is someone who can help in the future as Washington keeps building.
"You add [fellow 2009 Draft pick] Drew Storen, and you look back there and you see Zimmerman and [Ian] Desmond and you start to say, 'We've got some potential -- not just guys who can help us here, but guys who can help us for a long time,'" Riggleman said. "The future is bright with young players [and veterans], but pitching is what it's all about."
Strasburg showed the importance of pitching on a night that will live in baseball history. The Nationals are wondering if they'll get a similar night with Harper.
Only time will tell.
Jeff Seidel is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.