By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 10, 2009
Thirty-nine minutes apart last night, the Washington Nationals selected two right-handed pitchers, and their similarities spanned all of two sentences. Both have good fastballs and good character, team officials said. Both, if all goes well, could soon be in the big leagues.
By all other measurements, the Nationals used their two first-round selections last night in the amateur draft for counterbalancing purposes. Their No. 1 pick, San Diego State's Stephen Strasburg, might just save the franchise. Their No. 10 pick, Stanford's Drew Storen, will merely be asked to save a few games.
With a bounty of early draft picks, the Nationals opted for one-part fame, one-part security. Strasburg's talent (irresistible) and asking price (unprecedented) make him, in all ways, a once-in-a-generation player. Storen, meantime, comes with neither the hype nor the built-in negotiating theatrics. A contract agreement with Strasburg might not be determined until Aug. 17, the negotiating deadline. A contract agreement with Storen might come as soon as today.
Entering this year, the Nationals had already identified Strasburg as a top talent -- a surefire No. 1 pick. His selection yesterday was merely a formality. Still, it came with a momentary celebration. At 6:14 p.m., Washington's director of baseball operations, Brian Parker, called a Major League Baseball official and informed him of Washington's No. 1 selection. Two minutes later, at a television studio in Secaucus, N.J., Commissioner Bud Selig strode to a podium and announced a name that, even within the Nationals' clubhouse, everybody already knew.
That's how Strasburg, officially, became the No. 1 draft pick of the Washington Nationals. In the lowest level of Nationals Park, roughly 20 team officials -- those who've followed Strasburg for years -- congregated in a conference room, surrounded by televisions, laptops, bottled water and a whiteboard detailing their draft day strategy.
President Stan Kasten, who had been fiddling with his glasses in the minutes before the pick, rose from his chair, patted assistant general manager Bob Boone on the back, and shook hands with acting general manager Mike Rizzo. And that was it -- 10 seconds of back-slapping and smiles. The celebration lasted no longer than the crash of a wave. Kasten sat back down. Those in the room, especially Kasten and Rizzo, knew that Strasburg's selection only meant they could enter the onerous negotiating process, which will end either as landmark accomplishment or a hostage crisis.
Though Strasburg's selection afforded the franchise an energetic night, it signaled the start of a countdown. The Nationals now have 69 days to sign him. Strasburg is represented by Scott Boras, an agent known for exhausting negotiating tactics and, in this case, for his desire reset the market for how baseball's amateurs are paid. No drafted player has ever received an initial guaranteed contract in excess of $10.5 million, awarded to Mark Prior in 2001. Strasburg could end up with a figure doubling that. And Boras is expected to begin negotiations by asking for a total amount that could approach $50 million.
Determining Strasburg's value requires some careful calculation, a recognition of both his ability and the dangers. By almost all accounts, Strasburg is the top pitcher of the last few years. Maybe he is even the best in a generation, but that title seems to come around far more than once a generation. Prior was the best pitcher since Brien Taylor (1991), who was the best pitcher since Todd Van Poppel (1990), who was the best pitcher since Ben McDonald (1989). All were the best, it should be noted, until they faced the best hitters.
Immediately after the 10th pick, as Rizzo spoke briefly with the media, the posturing began. Though he called Strasburg the top player in the draft -- "He's certainly in the team photo of best guys I've seen," Rizzo said -- he used similar language for Strasburg and Storen. Both have two above-average pitches, Rizzo said. Neither, he insisted, is immediately ready for the major leagues.
"As far as I'm concerned, there is no pitcher or player that is major league ready coming out of the draft," Rizzo said.
Strasburg's college coach, Tony Gwynn, echoed the sentiment, saying: "You know, I think you have to kind of take your lumps in order to learn how to be a major league pitcher, but at the next level there are going to be guys who've seen 100-mile-per-hour fastballs, guys who've seen really good sliders. And he's going to have to learn how to get guys out by getting more balls over the plate, and you just don't have that, you have to learn that. He'll be a willing pupil, he'll learn that, and I think he'll have success."
Way back in February, managing principal owner Ted Lerner accompanied his son, Mark Lerner, and his wife, Annette Lerner, to Compton, Calif., where Strasburg was making his 2009 debut. The Lerners didn't speak directly to the right-hander, but they met his father, Jim. The Lerners were impressed with everything. Even then they knew their No. 1 pick.
The No. 10 pick crystallized only last week, when Storen, scouted by California-based Ryan Fox, came to Nationals Park for a tryout. The team had him pitch in their bullpen, and vetted his willingness to be a closer, as he was this season for the Cardinal. Storen, to those watching, had both the stuff and the mentality. He also had the right asking price, and several links to the organization. At Stanford, he roomed with Jack McGeary, a 2007 Nationals draft pick. Plus, his adviser is Brodie Van Wagenen, who also represents Ryan Zimmerman.
The Nationals know that negotiations with Strasburg will be a challenge. Even yesterday, Boras deflected the team's request to have the pitcher on a conference call with local reporters; indeed, Boras will be the point man for all access. Storen, meantime, was happy to share his thoughts about his new team. "I'm excited," he said "It's exactly what I wanted."