By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 9, 2009
They are separated by 2,700 miles, a negotiating gap that could be as large as $40 million and a philosophical chasm regarding players' rights that has had them at each other's throats on more than one occasion. But this summer, old rivals Scott Boras and Stan Kasten are likely to be brought together again, at their familiar spots on opposite sides of the table, for a negotiation that will impact the futures of a 20-year-old pitcher named Stephen Strasburg, the Washington Nationals franchise and perhaps the sport of baseball as well.
With the Nationals set to select Strasburg, the already-legendary San Diego State right-hander, with the first overall pick of today's Major League Baseball draft, Kasten, the Washington team president, and Boras, the super-agent based in Newport Beach, Calif., will be reunited for a contract negotiation that is being closely watched across the sport for its record- and precedent-setting possibilities.
Within the sport, the Strasburg negotiations are being viewed as a possible landmark case, bringing together baseball's most notorious agent, a pitcher who has been called the best prospect in history and the worst franchise in the game -- all within a draft system that has been criticized as unmanageable and unfair.
Between today and Aug. 15, the deadline for completing a deal, there will be several participants at the table for the Nationals besides Kasten: Acting general manager Mike Rizzo, who has his own history with Boras, will hold a central role for the team, while owner Theodore N. Lerner also is expected to be an active participant, as he was in negotiations for free agent first baseman Mark Teixeira, another Boras client, in December.
"Both parties have been face-to-face. They've had a dialogue," Rizzo said of the Lerner-Boras meetings during the Teixeira negotiations. "I think it's beneficial this is not the first time they've been in a room together. So, yeah, I think it helps."
Teixeira signed an eight-year, $180 million contract with the New York Yankees in December.
Kasten is expected to handle the heavy lifting in the Strasburg negotiations, and he has been the public face of the Nationals' pre-draft posturing -- implying the team intends to remain within the range of earlier signings of high-profile talents.
The record for guaranteed money remains the $10.5 million that pitcher Mark Prior received from the Chicago Cubs in 2001; like the vast majority of pitchers selected No. 1 overall, he fell short of expectations, winning just 42 games in the majors thus far. A year ago, top overall pick David Price, a left-handed pitcher, received a guaranteed $8.5 million from Tampa Bay.
The record for a signing bonus is $6.2 million, which catcher Buster Posey received from the San Francisco Giants last year.
"We intend to be aggressive, and we have every intention of signing the pick," Kasten said last week at Nationals Park. "We know what [top picks] have made [in the past]. We know the risks associated with any draft pick, much less a pitcher. It's why they get what they get. And we're going to be consistent with that. And if [a contract agreement] doesn't happen, and we have to take the second pick next year [as compensation], so be it."
Boras, meantime, has remained mostly mum about the pending negotiation. However, in a recent interview in the stands before one of Strasburg's starts, he implied a connection between Strasburg's case and the $52 million contract he secured for Japanese import Daisuke Matsuzaka in December 2006.
"The international market has always been a link to the value of the extraordinarily gifted draft pick," Boras said. "The fact is, we now have international baseball players who have never played in the major leagues dictating what the market is for talent. We have non-major leaguers getting value points. That means that the need for talent without major league certification is at a level it's never been at before, which tells you about the demand."
But demand, while a crucial factor in free agency, is not part of the equation in the draft, which is designed to maximize the team's leverage in negotiations -- especially since a rule was created years ago to grant the team a corresponding compensation pick in the following year's draft if it is unable to sign one of its picks. It is a rule that has benefited the Nationals, who also hold the 10th overall pick as compensation for failing to sign Missouri right-hander Aaron Crow last year.
Most industry observers expect Strasburg to settle for something far below $52 million, but something well above the previous record -- perhaps something in the neighborhood of $15 million to $20 million, spread out over a multiyear deal.
Boras has been known to exploit the draft to his advantage. In 1996, he found a loophole that allowed four drafted players to become free agents, gaining them an extra $20 million or more in compensation. He has also taken clients, including Jason Varitek and J.D. Drew, to independent leagues to increase their bargaining leverage.
It has been suggested Boras could sign Strasburg to an independent league team or take him to Japan -- and re-enter him in the 2010 draft -- if he does not get what he wants from the Nationals; however, that would be a riskier move for a pitcher, given pitchers' tendency to suffer arm injuries.
Both Kasten and Boras profess their respect for each other. Two years ago, when there was an opening on the board of directors of the Sports Lawyers Association, of which Kasten is a longtime board member, Kasten nominated Boras for the position after first phoning his longtime foil to make sure he was up for it.
"He chuckled and said, 'Okay, tell me what's involved,' " Kasten recalled. "I said, 'There are two meetings a year -- you should try to make one of them, at least. Oh, and there's this elaborate initiation ceremony that almost everybody has survived.' He said he would do it, and he was voted on unanimously."
Asked about his professional relationship with Boras, Kasten said: "I think we get along fine. That's not to say we don't clash from time to time. Scott just wants to get the best deal he can, always. I get that."
That is a bit more diplomatic than the comments Kasten made about Boras in a November 2007 interview on XM Radio, when he said: "I used to think of Scott as a necessary evil, and now I've changed. I no longer think he's necessary. He and I are friendly enough personally, but I think the way he conducts himself is perfectly consistent with the job he's given within the system we have. . . . If the union took over that job, and we had an agent-free universe, I think everything would be better."
When Boras was asked his relationship with Kasten, he deflected the question, saying: "The owners are the ones who dictate the philosophy of the franchise. The employee -- his philosophy is not relevant. . . . I'm going to deal with [the Nationals] professionally and objectively. That means being unemotional. I don't get into the relationship thing. I deal with the substantive part."
Pressed about his past dealings with Kasten, Boras said, "I have never had a problem with Stan."
But that does not appear to be exactly true. In 2001, the Atlanta Braves, of whom Kasten was team president at the time, negotiated a six-year, $75 million contract with Boras client Andruw Jones, without Boras's involvement. Although Kasten and Braves GM John Schuerholz insisted the talks were Jones's idea, and that they received assurances from the player that he was keeping Boras informed, the agent was said to be miffed about the process.
When asked recently about the Jones incident, Boras seemed to be still miffed, though more toward the Braves franchise than toward Kasten. "If you have ownership that is going to go directly to players and deny them representation, it's something that's going to be impactful on their dealings with players in the future," he said. "Because all the players in the league know about that now."
The implications of the Strasburg negotiations for the sport as a whole are clear. Although MLB has affixed suggested bonus figures for each slot in the draft (those figures reportedly are down 10 percent from a year ago, reflecting the impact of the economic recession), the system is ignored by some teams. A precedent-setting deal for Strasburg may hasten calls for a firm compensation system in the next round of collective bargaining -- something even some players would applaud.
"I think it's wrong. I really do," said Texas Rangers lefty Eddie Guardado, a 17-year veteran. "Give a guy 15, 20 million [dollars] right out of the gate? Hey, let him go through the system like everybody else, and once he gets to the big leagues, let's see how good he is. If he's really worth $20 million, or whatever -- hey, not a problem."
However, a union official said: "Our stance is that we are philosophically opposed to any systematic cap on player compensation. We'd be worried [such a cap on draft pick bonuses] was just be the first step towards a wider salary cap for the whole sport."
Regardless, Kasten said, if there is momentum toward a major change to the system in the future, it won't be because the Nationals exploded the current system with a deal for Strasburg.
"We're attempting to sign someone consistent with the system already in place. That's our view, and no one [from MLB] is telling us that," he said. "We're simply not going to change the sport."