Doubts about phenom Bryce Harper


Tim Tebow must haunt some NFL evaluators these days. He is the draft-eligible quarterback who promises to make you look either really smart or really dumb, because he is so well-known to casual fans, because his athleticism and his leadership skills are so well-known, and because his mechanical flaws have been so detailed.

Imagine if you're running the Jacksonville Jaguars and you pass on a couple of opportunities to take the Florida Gators product in the draft -- and then, in a couple of years, he cleans up his throwing motion and becomes a star in the NFL, a Tom Brady-like figure. Forevermore, you will have to listen to this: How in the world could you pass up Tebow? Everybody knew he was a monster athlete and a leader of men.

And, on the other hand, if you are running the Jags and you reach to take him, and he fails to develop, then you will get wrecked in the court of public opinion with this: What, are you an idiot? Everybody knew his throwing motion was a problem.

Well, in June, some baseball general managers and scouting directors are going to face their own Tim Tebow quandary, and his name is Bryce Harper.

The young slugging catcher made the cover of Sports Illustrated last year, and given his set of tools and skills, there was an attempt to co-opt the notion that Harper, and not Stephen Strasburg, was the LeBron James of amateur baseball. Because of Harper's tremendous bat speed, his size, his raw power.

But with Strasburg, as with LeBron James, there was no doubt: He was the best pitching prospect anybody could remember. Harper, on the other hand, has become a figure of great debate in the scouting community.

Yes, the tremendous bat speed is there -- and yes, scouts are noting privately that Harper tends to swing and miss a whole lot more than great young hitters usually do. So far this spring, while playing at Southern Nevada, a junior college, he has 15 strikeouts in 56 at-bats and is hitting .356.

Joe Mauer's swing, as a high school kid, was smooth, easy, natural. Harper's swing, some scouts are saying, is violent, with the mechanics of his legs and hips a concern.

The scouts see how hard he plays; one scout compared his playing style to that of Kirk Gibson. But they wonder if he will be a guy who tries too hard, and whether he will cope with the inherent failure in baseball, given the pressure that he will face.

Yes, he is big -- but the scouts wonder if he is too big, and if the hype about him came too quickly.

Scouts see reasons why the Washington Nationals could take him with the first pick in the draft. But on the other hand, scouts also see reasons why they would pass. "Last year, at this time, there was no doubt -- Strasburg was far and away the best player in the draft," said one talent evaluator. "I don't think that's the case here."

In truth, Harper scares some evaluators -- to the point that some teams are hoping that some other team, like the Nationals, takes him early in the draft. Because they recognize the possibility that Harper could become a star, and they don't want to listen to years of second-guessing for their decision to pass on him.

He figures to go somewhere in the top 10 picks in the draft. He might go first; he might fall. And as with Tebow, someone is going to look very smart or very dumb, because his potential strengths and flaws are all on the table for everyone to see.

• Speaking of Mauer: His agent continues to negotiate with the Twins, as La Velle Neal and Joe Christensen write. It's as if we're waiting for puffs of white smoke to rise over the Twins' complex.

But you know what? The Mauer negotiations might be the most important issue in baseball right now, because they will be read as one barometer for the evolving issue of the Haves vs. The Have-Nots. It would be good for the image of baseball for Mauer to re-sign with the Twins.

• Yogi Berra asked Evan Longoria for an autograph. I've written this here before: Yogi is one of the biggest fans of baseball in the game; he is very well-versed on the current generation of players, in a way that you don't usually hear from former stars. I remember bumping into him six years ago and hearing him rave about Indians catcher Victor Martinez, in great detail.

The McCourts

• The fees so far for their divorce proceedings are at $19 million, writes Bill Shaikin.

From a Cactus League volunteer

My colleague Gene Wojciechowski is a spawn of the University of Tennessee, which is too bad for him, but he is a great reporter whose notebook overflows with information. He sent these leftovers along, after a pass through Arizona:

Alfonso Soriano says his left knee is about 80 to 85 percent, but he pushes himself to play. "[It's] not about my contract," Soriano said, "but just more about my teammates and the love that I have for the game. So I don't like to sit down and watch the game. Sometimes I'm sore in my body, but if I can play, I want to play. So ... that's a big problem with me because sometimes I've got pain and I'm not going to shut it down and I just keep playing. Especially with my knee last year, the trainer say I think you need a rest for, like, two weeks. If you rest for two weeks, it will be fine. I say, no, I keep playing because I believe myself that my knee is going to be better than get worse. ... I want to be a little more careful, but I don't want to lose my aggressiveness in the field. I don't want to play just to take care of myself, to not get hurt."

Russell Martin looks much bigger in his upper body after his winter workouts: "Last year, I came in a little light. I just went back to my roots. Just get strong, explosive." He worked out with a punching bag in the offseason and mixed in cardio, jumping jacks, mountain climbers, curls -- generating nonstop motion. And he is working to strengthen his hands. "Strength is so important," Martin said. "Certain areas are more important than others. Your core is huge. Your hands."

(By the way: Just kidding with the UT crack. It's a UT-Vanderbilt thing.)

Dings and dents

1. So far, not so good for Brandon Webb, who might start the year on the disabled list. The Diamondbacks loaded up during the winter, and the hope within the organization is that the team can get off to a good start and compete for the NL West title, while rekindling fan interest in Phoenix. That has been predicated, in part, on the successful return of Webb, so his status is a major concern; a debilitating shoulder issue would be a major problem. Hopefully, Webb -- who is a free agent after this season -- will turn the corner.

2. Jose Reyes has a thyroid imbalance, and faces the unknown, as Bob Klapisch writes.

In some quarters, the Mets are criticized for the work of their medical staff -- which probably is really silly. No matter how you look at it, there's no denying that they've had extraordinarily bad luck with injuries and ailments, such as with Reyes.

Reyes' illness is treatable, doctors tell Jonathan Lehman.

3. Jack Wilson has a hamstring issue, writes Larry LaRue.

4. Nick Johnson isn't going to play until Monday.

5. Angel Guzman could be facing shoulder surgery; the Cubs fear the worst, writes Paul Sullivan.

6. The Rockies' Rafael Betancourt has a sore shoulder, writes Troy Renck.

7. J.J. Putz feels like he is being a little cautious.

8. John Baker has a sore arm. That's not unusual for catchers at this time in spring training, because of all the throwing they have to do in camp.

9. Freddy Sanchez might start swinging a bat next week.

10. A couple of Indians got hurt, writes Paul Hoynes.

Moves, deals and decisions

1. The Nationals are thinking about making Ryan Zimmerman their team captain, writes Adam Kilgore.

There are currently only two captains in Major League Baseball -- Jason Varitek and Derek Jeter -- and there's a reason for that. The concept of a captain in baseball is pretty dumb, and I'd bet that there are folks within both the Boston and Yankees' organization who wish that they had never gone down the road of naming captains. And not because of anything that Jeter or Varitek did or didn't do; it just doesn't fit the baseball culture. Is there really a point to anointing someone? Everyone in a given clubhouse knows exactly who the leaders on a team are, without the ceremony and the special insignia. Zimmerman is a young star and highly respected, a leader on the Nationals now, and giving him a "C" on his jersey won't make him more of a leader.

2. Gordon Beckham has decided to sing, writes Mark Gonzales.

3. Cole Hamels tried out his cutter, and he was happy with the way the pitch felt.

4. The Mariners are taking it slow this spring with Felix Hernandez, writes Geoff Baker.

5. Mark Reynolds would like his contract situation settled.

6. A 20-year-old Mets' reliever is forcing his way into consideration for the Opening Day roster.

7. No matter how good Josh Bell looks this spring, Miguel Tejada will be the Orioles' third baseman, writes Peter Schmuck.

8. Tom Hicks is OK with how the Rangers' sale is playing out.

Friday's games

1. Zack Greinke was great, as usual.

2. Phil Hughes was OK in his first outing, while Joba Chamberlain -- who has been ailing -- was not so good. Joba needs to start bringing the heat, writes John Harper. Chamberlain is learning how to deal with the Joba of starting, writes Kevin Kernan.

The Yankees should end all the intrigue about the No. 5 spot in the rotation and just put Chamberlain in the bullpen. That's almost certainly what is going to happen, anyway, but I don't think it's a bad idea to keep running Chamberlain out there as a starter early in spring training to get him as many innings as possible.

3. 47-year-old Jamie Moyer threw well in his spring debut, as Andy Martino writes. Within the same piece, there is word of impressive work done by Domonic Brown. Some rival scouts absolutely love Brown, and feel like that the Phillies' Ruben Amaro did great work in keeping Brown through all the Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay trade talks.

4. The Rays' Jeremy Hellickson impressed. I play in one fantasy keeper league, and last week I took him in the last round. Sean Rodriguez continues to hit this spring for the Rays.

5. Jon Lester was bad from the start in an outing against the Twins, writes Peter Abraham. Tim Wakefield tossed two scoreless innings.

6. Chris Tillman had a strong showing in his debut.

7. Tigers' phenom Jacob Turner had a great outing, as John Lowe writes.

8. Tony Sanchez, the Pirates' No. 1 pick last year, was impressive in his debut. Talked with folks with the Pirates who absolutely love Sanchez.

9. The Marlins' Mike Stanton gave a possible glimpse into the future, writes Clark Spencer.

10. The Jays' Jose Bautista is off to a good start, writes Ken Fidlin. Brandon Morrow had a good day, writes Morgan Campbell.

11. The Twins are off to a great start.

12. Mat Latos shined in his debut for the Padres, writes Bill Center.

13. Mark Rogers had a sharp performance, writes Tom Haudricourt.

14. The command of Jeff Francis was poor on Friday.

15. The Reds had a bad game. Only 4,000 showed up for the game, a 10,000-seat park, as Hal McCoy noted.

16. Brad Penny, who is working on a sinker, got hit around.

Other stuff

• The Athletics are hungry for the postseason, writes Tyler Kepner. Ben Sheets' tenacity is no laughing matter.

Albert Pujols hung out with Kobe Bryant.

• Jim Leyland wants to see Joel Zumaya use his secondary pitches more.

Matt Stairs has a distinct pinch-hitting philosophy, as Dan Hayes reports: "Swing like you live [expletive] hard."

• Al Kaline loves what the Tigers have put together, writes Tom Gage.

Rafael Furcal is feeling good, writes Dylan Hernandez.

Lance Berkman is serious about winning, writes Richard Justice.

• The Rangers need Julio Borbon to produce, writes Randy Galloway.

• Rangers first baseman Chris Davis asked Evan Grant to feel his beard.

Bobby Crosby is Pittsburgh's infield insurance, writes Rob Biertempfel.

• Harmon Killebrew thinks Michael Cuddyer could hit more home runs, writes John Shipley.

Billy Wagner has quickly become a leader for the Braves, writes David O'Brien.

• Canadian ballplayers will always remember where they were when Team Canada won last week, writes Bob Elliott.

• Ronan Tynan, who will forever be known as the Yankees' tenor, has left New York, because work has dried up for him in the aftermath of some highly publicized remarks he made.

• Bronze statues of Nick Adenhart and Preston Gomez were unveiled, writes Mike DiGiovanna.

• Jermaine Beal has had a great run at Vanderbilt, which plays South Carolina on Saturday.

• I get e-mails from folks asking about my sister, Amelia Lincoln; thanks for those thoughts. She is doing great, all signs are excellent, as she prepares for a second round of chemo in the week ahead.

And today will be better than yesterday.