Strasburg worthy of pick, but at right price
Breaking slotting system would wreck Nats' plans
When it comes to Stephen Strasburg the Washington Nationals are in the most difficult of situations.
Our nation's capital will be giddy with excitement if the Nationals, as expected, choose the celebrated San Diego State flame-throwing pitcher with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft on Tuesday.
That euphoria, however, will quickly wane if the Nationals are unable to sign Strasburg.
Pitchers with his talent come along only once in a generation.
I'm reluctant to call him the savior that will transform the Nationals from the worst team in the Major Leagues to a contender, but his impact will be enormous.
By signing him the message sent to an eroding fan base will be positive about the future. There will be renewed hope.
But if Strasburg and the Nationals cannot agree on his worth, there will be the predicted criticism that the team is not committed to winning. The backlash will be tremendous.
As the 20-year-old Strasburg piled up victories and strikeouts this spring I kept hearing that Scott Boras, his super agent, believes the right-hander is worth $50 million.
That's far above the so-called informal slotting system Major League Baseball has established, the exact details of which have not been published.
Regardless, whatever the true numbers are, Commissioner Bud Selig wants Draft bonuses reduced by 10 percent this year because of the widespread economic problems facing just about every team.
Last year Tim Beckham was the No. 1 pick overall and paid a $6.15 million bonus by Tampa Bay.
The record for a signing bonus was set in 2001 when the Chicago Cubs gave USC's Mark Prior $10.5 million. He made his Major League debut May 22, 2002.
At San Diego State, playing for Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Strasburg was 13-1 with a 1.32 ERA and 195 strikeouts. Once in 2008 he struck out 23 University of Utah batters in a nine-inning game.
But $50 million?
Ditto $25 million.
As much as the Nationals need a Stephen Strasburg, whose fastball has been clocked at more than 100 mph, they cannot wreck their franchise and Major League Baseball to sign him.
Boras, of course, is one of the greatest negotiators in baseball history. He can be unbelievably persuasive and seldom backs down from his demands.
I also know Nationals president Stan Kasten. He's attempting to build a foundation of young, talented players and no matter how tempted he becomes to throw extra millions at Strasburg he'll not destroy his long-range plan to do it.
Pitchers Jordan Zimmermann, Shairon Martis, Ross Detwiler and Opening Day starter John Lannan have come up through the Washington system and have the makings of a strong rotation.
"This rotation is starting to come into view with young kids that are going to take another 10-20-30 starts in the Major Leagues to really blossom," Kasten says.
Plus, Kasten is a staunch supporter of Selig. An out-of-whack signing would create havoc in the Draft from top to bottom for years to come.
"We're not going to disrupt the whole industry or our whole system for one case. That's not going to happen," says Kasten. "Fans are going to be supportive when the team does well and they're going to wait until that time."
A year ago the Nationals drafted right-hander Aaron Crow with the ninth pick. Then-general manager Jim Bowden could not reach an agreement with the University of Missouri product by the Aug. 15 deadline. The two sides were $900,000 apart -- the difference between $3.5 million and $4.4 million.
By not being able to sign Crow, who'll be back in the Draft this year and an expected first-round pick, the Nationals will get the 10th overall pick on Tuesday to go with their No. 1.
"We offered Crow the highest contract any pitcher in the Draft had, but that wasn't enough," says Kasten. "We said, 'OK, thank you very much, we're moving on.' That's what we will do this year if someone wants to rewrite the rules."
If the Nationals draft Strasburg and are unable to sign him, they'll get the No. 2 pick in the 2010 Draft.
Despite his talent and potential, Strasburg has never pitched in the Major Leagues. Because if the innings (about 100) pitched this year, I believe it's a longshot he'll be rushed to the Majors. Maybe late in the season, but certainly not immediately if he is signed.
Despite that, it's quite likely negotiations may unfold as if he were a free-agent pitcher seeking a lucrative contract.
"This is not a case of a free agent; it's a case of the Draft," says Kasten. "We know what Draft picks gets."
Considering Boras' negotiating tactics, I wonder if the $50 million was floated so he can obtain a much lower amount, but much more than what a No. 1 pick, even with Strasburg's talent, should receive.
But Boras insists Strasburg "is the best amateur player I've ever seen."
Kasten was president of the Atlanta Braves during the great years when pitchers Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz helped the franchise win all those division titles. He was also general manager at the same time of the NBA Atlanta Hawks and points out the two sports are very different when it comes to amateur drafts.
"There's a critical difference between basketball and baseball," he says. "In baseball there's the entire Minor League apparatus. Players need a year, two, three or five to make it to the Majors. Unlike the NBA no one player can transform a team."
He adds that on Tuesday "we're going to take the player we think is the best and hope to add another building block to our foundation. We know what first-round picks get. We know what the Draft is supposed be and we absolutely expect to sign our guys."
Getting his dander up a bit and reiterating a point, Stan adds: "If someone thinks we have to change the rules and make this something other than the way the Draft is operated then we've decided pick No. 2 is preferable to whoever we could get second this year. That is to say, we'd just as soon pass and take the compensation for next year."
But that won't be Stephen Strasburg.
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.