Strasburg Is the Pick for the Nationals, if the Price Is Right

By Thomas Boswell
Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Tonight, when the Nats presumably take Stephen Strasburg as the No. 1 overall pick in the baseball draft, the team and its fans can begin to fantasize. And agonize, too.

How good will Strasburg become? And how tortuous will negotiations be between the Nats and agent Scott Boras up to the Aug. 15 signing deadline?

The second issue is simple. My advice: Let them worry about it. Call us on the Ides of August. That'll be soon enough to find out whether the two sides, weakened by recent embarrassments and low on leverage, are so stubborn that they can't get Strasburg signed. Remember, this is an arm-wrestling contest between 97-pound weaklings -- baseball's worst team, with crowds down 25 percent, and an agent whose two most famous clients are this year's PED poster boys, A-Rod and Manny Ramírez. Neither wants more headaches.

So for two months, we should just take the "negotiations" for what they are worth: entertainment, probably as farce. This deal is going to get done at about $15 million, give or take less money than the Nats just ate in Daniel Cabrera's $2.6 million contract. Chill.

However, because egos are in play, you'll hear discussions of "principle" that will make you think the Bill of Rights is at stake. Ignore them. Only "principal" is at stake.

Baseball has a nice cozy unwritten "slotting" system for paying players when they are drafted out of high school or college. Partly, it's a rigged system, a tacit agreement between owners and the players union to leave the salaries of unproven kids at a fairly cheap level. After all, the MLB Players Association only represents big leaguers. So any dollar a Strasburg gets comes out of the pockets of the collective union membership.

The only person on the side of the amateur is his agent. But this is the one time when no agent has much juice, except to protest the unjustness of it all and scream, "This is the greatest player who ever lived." And if you don't sign him, your fans will storm the gates.

Unfortunately for Strasburg, and every other player picked, history works against them. If the baseball draft were a birthday gift, it'd be a lottery ticket inside a box the size of a house -- big hopes, long odds. Compared to the NFL and NBA, this draft is like taking target practice at midnight. You don't even know if you're aimed at the bull's-eye? Since 1965, only one truth has been revealed: Everybody is guessing.

"It's a different type of draft [than the NFL or NBA] because the lists among the 30 baseball teams are very, very different," said Nationals interim general manager Mike Rizzo, who had a successful relationship with Boras and his clients in his days in Arizona's front office. "There's very little consensus."

What's the hardest job in sports? It's not hitting a baseball. It's figuring out who can hit a baseball. Or throw one. Nobody hits .300 at the scouting game. And that is the central reason that neither Boras-Strasburg, nor any other agent-player tandem, will ever be able to make a convincing argument for awarding a vast contract to an amateur. The odds are too great that it's wasted money. And, in the case of pitchers, the odds are even worse. Hurlers get hurt far more and return to 100-percent strength much less.

Of all the pitchers ever picked No. 1 overall since 1965, here are the best: Andy Benes, Mike Moore, Floyd Bannister and Tim Belcher, all 150-150 types. The list of flops, like Boras client Brien Taylor, a lefty who never reached Yankee Stadium, is much longer. In fact, to find a great pitcher in the draft, you have to go all the way to a No. 18 overall choice: Roger Clemens. The list of Hall of Fame hitters picked earlier is at least 20.

Despite this, I'm a Strasburg booster, if the price isn't totally loony.

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