A Little Crow for Both Sides in Negotiations

Aaron Crow will reenter the draft in 2009 after failing to reach an agreement with the Nationals.
Aaron Crow will reenter the draft in 2009 after failing to reach an agreement with the Nationals. (By L.g. Patterson -- Associated Press)
By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 17, 2008

Even in the postmortem inspection of a negotiating process that left both sides worse off, few can find the miscalculation. Maybe the Washington Nationals should have anticipated, in their pre-draft assessment, that the sturdiness Aaron Crow showed on the mound also would apply to his financial demands. Maybe Crow's advisers, Alan and Randy Hendricks, did not foresee Washington's willingness to stick with its budget, even if it required absorbing a lashing from the public. Maybe earnest negotiation shouldn't have waited until the final minutes, when both sides suddenly stared at nearly unprecedented consequences.

Yesterday, those in the Nationals' front office faced a finality they had long dreaded but never really expected. Aaron Crow, the 21-year-old the Nationals had drafted June 5, could have accepted a last-second $3.5 million contract, all but guaranteeing his appearance in the big leagues next month. Instead, just before midnight Friday, his advisers said no. Crow decided to reenter the draft in 2009.

As a result, the Washington franchise stumbling through its most bruising year since relocating to the District must endure the most baffling turn of events yet. Why couldn't the team sign Crow, who could have been a part of the 2009 rotation? Yesterday, several involved portrayed a baffling process of dysfunctional negotiations that defied conventions and provided few clear lessons for next time.

In retrospect, the timeline of events included one day of celebration, then a lot of silence, then a flurry of too-late talk. When the Nationals drafted Crow ninth overall, they toasted. They had just stolen one of the top two pitchers in the draft, they believed -- a right-hander whose fastball could reach 98 mph. On draft day, several high-ranking team officials spoke to Crow by conference call.

"After that," Assistant General Manager Mike Rizzo said yesterday, "I never spoke to the player again."

Rizzo described all negotiations before Aug. 12 as "a lot of radio silence." Washington had no concrete discussions with the Hendricks brothers. General Manager Jim Bowden said he struggled to get them on the phone. "It ended up being all e-mails," Bowden said. "We kept trying to engage in discussion."

At 6 p.m. on Aug. 12, with just 60 hours left before the deadline, the Hendricks team gave its first number: Crow wanted a $9 million bonus, roughly four times the total Washington was offering. Bowden said yesterday that Washington's signing bonus offers, starting from the initial figure given on draft day, followed a gradual arc. First, the bonus numbers were influenced by Major League Baseball's slotting recommendations; then, as more players signed above-slot deals, the Nationals followed the market. They offered $2.1 million, then $2.2 million, then $2.25 million.

And that's where things stood entering the final day for negotiation. The sides were $6.75 million apart.

Just after 3 p.m. Friday, the Orioles signed Brian Matusz, the draft's top pitcher, for $3.2 million, a deal that included a major league contract -- something Crow also wanted. Immediately after hearing about Matusz, Bowden called Randy Hendricks and offered an almost identical deal. Hendricks, Bowden said, had no interest.

To complicate matters, Washington's offer of a major league contract -- which stipulates that the player immediately joins the 40-man roster -- had a short shelf life. Without first conducting a physical, the Nationals were unwilling to give out such a contract. If the team didn't examine Crow with an MRI by roughly 6:30 p.m., it would be too late to analyze the results by the midnight deadline. Thus, by the evening, the major league deal was again off the table.

Still, the sides closed.

"We gave them a final offer at 10:30 p.m.," Bowden said. "We said here's a final take-it-or-leave-it offer of $3 million, which we later moved to $3.3 million. And then verbally at the last minute, we went to $3.5 million. Which was our final offer, by phone, at 11:59, at the buzzer. The last e-mail offer we sent them was $3.3 million."

At 11:44 p.m., the demand from the Crow side dropped from $9 million to $4.4 million, according to Bowden. Randy Hendricks said yesterday that Washington's final offer was $3.3 million and that Crow wanted $4 million. Just before midnight, Bowden called Crow's father, Kevin, to reiterate the sum his son was about to reject.

"We gave in," Bowden said yesterday. "They wanted an out-of-the-box deal. We gave them an out-of-the-box deal. We tried to understand where they were coming from. We tried to value the player properly and we tried to negotiate a contract to sign the player. But that being said, we're not going to be bullied into just giving a number just because someone says you've got to pay 'X'. We have to negotiate a contract that is consistent with the value of the player and consistent with what the marketplace is paying at the time we negotiate the deal."

"We believe we offered the Nationals a very fair compromise deal and they turned it down," Hendricks wrote in an e-mail. "So we move on."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company