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Harper watch begins at JUCO tournament

Harper watch begins at JUCO tournament

On the surface, the Fourth Annual Coyote Border Battle in Henderson, Nev., last weekend seemed like the typical season-opening tournament on the Junior College circuit.

But this was no ordinary tournament. Not when Bryce Harper, dubbed as the "Chosen One" on a Sports Illustrated cover not long ago, was making his highly anticipated college debut for the College of Southern Nevada.

The 17-year-old Harper graduated high school two years early and enrolled at CSN so he could be eligible for the 2010 First-Year Player Draft. Since then -- actually, probably before then -- he's been thought of as the presumptive No. 1 overall pick and, with coverage like the cover story in SI, one of the greatest prospects ever to hit the scene.

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Harper, of course, is not an overnight sensation. He's been turning heads since he started hitting the showcase circuit at age 14. Last weekend, many thought, would be just Step 1 in the catcher's top-prospect coronation.

The numbers for the weekend weren't thrilling: 3-for-15 (including an 0-for-8 doubleheader on Saturday). He did drive in his first runs and hit his first home run on Sunday, and he more or less handled the spotlight fairly well.

"I thought he handled it fine," said Southern Nevada coach Tim Chambers. "It was opening night, and I wasn't overly concerned. Everybody gets jitters and overly hyped, particularly this opening night. I don't know if any JUCO in the country gets 2,000 people. It was packed. It was exciting.

"He handled Friday much better than Saturday. You could tell he was a little nervous. Saturday, he didn't have a lot of success; that can be attributed to a mechanical thing we've been working on. It was not a great weekend, I'm sure not what he expected, but it was what I expected."

Obviously, there's more to evaluating amateur talent than just the stats in a JC opening weekend. Talking to a couple of the 100 or so scouts reportedly in attendance provides a little more detail, and some mixed opinions, of how Harper looked as his team went 4-0.

Offensively, there was a lot to like. He's got a good approach at the plate, especially for his age, and seems to see the ball well. He's got plus raw power and even though he's still not physically mature, he's got serious pop to the opposite field.

There is a little divergence over just how good an all-around hitter he'll be. One scout had no doubt that he'll hit plenty, while another felt that Harper will hit plenty of balls out of the park, but will swing and miss enough to keep the batting average down. It's a mechanical flaw in his swing, where he gets out on his front foot way too early and his bat drags through the zone.

Chambers says it's because Harper has been sitting on his back side too much and is forced to seemingly jump at the ball in order to reach it. Whatever the case, Harper is still able to crush balls on the outer half of the plate but was having difficulty with pitches coming inside.

The opinions are even more varied when it comes to his defense. No one questions his arm, which grades out as a plus regardless of where he's playing. There have been concerns over his ability to stay behind the plate and they weren't necessarily answered over the weekend. Harper played three positions over the weekend -- catcher, third and center field -- leading some to wonder why he wasn't behind the plate more.

"I'm a big believer in loyalty," Chambers explained. "We start eight sophomores. I felt I owed the sophomore the start behind the plate on Friday. The guy at third had been struggling, so I could justify it.

"We play 24 doubleheaders on the year. You can't catch doubleheaders. He'll split time behind the plate, catch and play the outfield primarily all year long. He'll play some third. He may even pitch some innings. We'll move him around to show his athleticism."

One scout felt with certainty that Harper would not be able to catch as a professional, but liked him at third just fine. Another scout felt that while there were some issues with his work behind the plate, particularly a very long throwing motion that negates some of his arm strength, Harper has more than enough to stay there.

"I think he's going to be a good catcher," the scout said. "He's a little rough from a technique standpoint. But from a tools standpoint, he's got a good chance to be above-average. His problems catching are correctable."

This is also just the beginning for Harper and the hordes of scouts who will be watching his every move from now until the First-Year Player Draft on June 7. CSN will head to Phoenix for one game against GateWay Community College on Wednesday then will come back home for a doubleheader against Yavapai College.

For now, Chambers and Harper's teammates are trying to make it easy for the phenom. He's not talking to the media or to scouts, and Chambers said his sophomore-laden squad has not minded picking up the slack when it comes to interviews. Eventually, Chambers will become a little less protective once it seems like Harper has acclimated to dealing with the rigors of college baseball and classes.

"It's been overwhelming for me," Chambers said of the interview requests, "so that gives me more confidence I made the right decision."

Chambers saw how the attention wore on Harper over the summer, how there were constant demands on his time and attention and that Harper came back exhausted. So he made the decision then to try and protect Harper for as long as he could, even if it meant ruffling some feathers along the way. But for a player whose every move is being examined -- video of his first home run at CSN is already on YouTube -- it wasn't a difficult call for him to make.

"He handles it well, keeps it in better than most," Chambers said. "It's fortunate with the ballclub that we have. We're super-talented on the mound. It's a good year to have it happen. We're going to win games, and he doesn't have to be the superhero everyone thinks he is."

Critics will point out that much of that superhero image is self-imposed, that the reason why everyone wants a piece of Harper is largely because of the decision he made, along with his advisors at the Boras Corporation, to skip high school early and be a pioneer, of sorts.

"There's no question, when you're trying to do something no one's done before, it's going to get hyped," Chambers agreed. "For me, it got to be too much for him. I said, 'Let's get him back on the ground, let him go to school, and let him do what he's best at, and that's playing baseball.' "

He'll be evaluated fully for that, as well as how he handles the pressure and attention all spring. There's no doubt this is a different animal, one that has some scouts wondering just how to figure it out.

"I can tell you right now, it will not be a simple evaluation," said another scout. "I don't think any of us have ever scouted a 17-year-old against 20-year-olds using a wood bat. We know the kid is good,and I can project with the best of them, but this isn't going to be the slam-dunk the media portrays it to be."

Those other scouts in attendance mentioned above agree. While it's way too early to know for sure where he should -- much less where he will -- go on Draft day, putting the No. 1 crown on his head would be way too premature.

"He's playing up at age 17, there's a lot of pressure on him, a lot of people are watching him play," one scout said. "But I can definitely tell you he's not the best player in the country. He's by no means a slam-dunk type of a talent."

Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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