Online Only

Nats, Top Pick Fail to Reach Accord

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 16, 2008; 1:48 AM

This morning, just minutes before 1 a.m., Washington Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden walked into a conference room on the executive level of Nationals Park to make an announcement. The first words from his mouth eulogized the failed union between a player and a team.

Though the Nationals loved the player's potential, in the end, they couldn't validate his demands.

"We worked extremely hard," Bowden said, "and were unable to sign Aaron Crow, our first-round pick."

The Nationals had spent months scouting Crow, a right-handed pitcher from Missouri; team representatives had attended every one of his college games. Bowden and others then spent two months locked into negotiations with Crow, hoping to make the pitcher part of the team's future. Instead, unbridgeable differences drove the sides into a stalemate unprecedented in Washington's brief history here.

Crow's advisors, Alan and Randy Hendricks, according to Bowden, first expressed their desired signing bonus on August 12 ¿ just three days before the signing deadline. Crow wanted $9 million, Bowden said, a figure roughly quadrupling the number recommended by Major League Baseball's slotting system, which advises $2,150,000 for a ninth overall pick. Crow also wanted a major league contract, a stipulation made clear to the Nationals before they drafted him.

As negotiations reached the final hours yesterday, the two sides got within $700,000 to $900,000, depending on the source.

Randy Hendricks said in an e-mail early this morning that the Nationals offered $3.3 million, nothing higher. "We said no,"Hendricks wrote. "We would have signed for $4.0 million, and made them that offer. They said no."

Bowden provided a different account: Just 20 minutes before the deadline, Crow dropped his demands to $4.4 million, more than the $3.2 million bonus Baltimore gave to the fourth pick, Brian Matusz, the first pitcher taken.

"At the end of the day," Bowden said, "we stepped up and went to $3.5 million in an attempt to sign him, and unfortunately we couldn't get it done."

The team also included a major league contract as part of its final offer.

This year, the Nationals often showed a willingness to exceed baseball's slotting recommendations, even though doing so can come with its own repercussions ¿ sometimes political dissatisfaction from the commissioner's office. The Nationals signed nine of their top 10 draft picks, issuing above-slot bonuses to the fourth players drafted between the second and fifth rounds. Only with Crow did they deem the asking price too high.

"I think we've demonstrated amply our willingness to be flexible ¿ but not much interest into being bullied into something unreasonable," team president Stan Kasten said earlier in the day.

Since relocating to Washington, the team had established a track record for quickly signing first-round picks. In 2005, Ryan Zimmerman agreed to terms just weeks after the draft. Top picks in 2006 and 2007, Chris Marrero and Ross Detwiler, both signed in early July. When the team selected Crow this year, Bowden hoped the latest draftee could follow suit. If he did, the team believed, Crow could be ready for the majors by 2009.

At the University of Missouri, as a junior, Crow had a 13-0 record and a streak of 43 consecutive scoreless innings. Signing Crow would have almost certainly turned him into the team's top-rated prospect.

The failure to sign Crow will make him eligible for next year's draft.

And the Nationals will gain a compensatory first-round pick, a "9B selection that will ensure them two picks in the top half of the first round.

On Wednesday, to secure a back-up option if talks with Washington fell through, Crow signed with the Fort Worth Cats, an independent minor league team. According to Hendricks, Crow will begin pitching in relief for the Cats this week, perhaps as soon as today.

Said Hendricks: "It looks to me like [the Nationals] wasted a lot of time for themselves and for Aaron."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company