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.
(Until Aug. 15, anytime I need a lift, I'm just going to imagine Boras and Nationals President Stan Kasten "discussing" what constitutes a fair yet not insane price. Both follow old negotiating playbooks and know each other by heart. Pick a date when Boras will say the Nats have "disrespected" Strasburg. As for Kasten, he already claims that if the Nats can't sign Strasburg, they can live with getting next year's No. 2 overall pick as compensation. Really? Because last season's failed negotiations with No. 9 overall pick Aaron Crow worked out so well? Kasten was so delighted about that he was still steamed about it at Thanksgiving. Google "Strasburg bluff" and Stan's face comes up.)
Everyone who has seen the San Diego State right-hander has a comparison or projection to make. For me, he's as close to a clone of Mark Prior and Kerry Wood as you'll see. And he's probably just about as good a prospect. All three pitchers are listed as about 6 feet 5 and 225 pounds. All had fastballs at or near 100 mph but were made truly special by their dazzling breaking pitches, the kind that unfortunately put the most strain on the arm. When he left Southern Cal, Prior received the biggest guaranteed contract ever for a pitching prospect, $10.5 million. Strasburg belongs in the same category. But he isn't better. He's not the best pitching prospect ever. He's the best one since the last one.
This parallel to the two fire-balling Cubs is high praise. Prior went 18-6 at 23 with a 2.43 ERA and 245 strikeouts. However, arm injuries drove him out of the game at 25. Wood struck out 20 men in a game and had 266 strikeouts in a season. But he never won more than 14 games and, after arm woes, is now an Indians reliever.
That opinion comes with one caveat. Both times I've seen Strasburg -- up close in Beijing against Cuba and on TV against Virginia in the NCAA tournament -- his fastball ranged from 93 to 97 mph. In both games, hitters reacted as if his fastball was straight, with little movement, fouling off pitches and taking him deep in counts. So where is the "consistent 98 to 102 mph" that scouts rave about? Maybe I've seen his two "off" nights. Cuba and the Cavs are the only teams to beat him in those nine months. Even if the speed is real, throwing 100 mph is not unique. When the Tigers came to Baltimore, Justin Verlander, Joel Zumaya, Fernando Rodney and Ryan Perry hit 101, 101, 99 and 98.
Against Virginia, Strasburg also brought to mind another Phenom of the Century: Ben McDonald, the 6-7 alligator wrestler from LSU with the high-90s fastball, the big 12-to-6 curve, exceptional command and hype so enormous that it undermined his self confidence. Long homers, and base runners around him, brought out the worst in Big Ben. In those first two innings against U-Va., Strasburg used 49 pitches, allowed five hits, including a 410-foot home run, threw two wild pitches and made a nervous fielding error when he bobbled an easy dribbler.
The moment when the Nats say "Strasburg," should not be dampened by too many doubts. The Nats could dearly use a Prior or Wood, even with arm risks attached. For that matter, they would do well to add a durable Benes or Bannister. Heck, even McDonald gave the Orioles a few solid years. Avert your eyes when all those No. 1 flops are mentioned.
After weeks of needless but amusing melodrama, Strasburg will almost certainly become a National -- at a price the billionaire Lerners can well afford and Boras can swallow. Then comes the fun. There's never been a No. 1 overall pitching pick that had a long and great career. But there's always a first time for everything.