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Nats Make Pitch to Strasburg, and It's Time to Swing a Deal

By Thomas Boswell
Sunday, August 16, 2009

First, let's try to be reasonable. That's always a good place to start. See the other person's point of view. After all, you can always decide to go ballistic on 'em later.

If I were the Nationals, who have already put a record-setting deal on the table for Stephen Strasburg, I wouldn't offer more than $16 million. That's 50 percent more than any pitcher in the baseball draft has ever gotten -- Mark Prior's $10.5 million deal in 2001. A 21-year-old who has never faced a professional hitter isn't worth more than that. The top contract in 2008 was only $6 million.

Since 1965, when the draft began, only one pitcher taken in the top 18 spots in the first round has ever won 200 or more games (Kevin Brown). All-time greats? There's not one out of more than 300 such selections. Based on the history of high picks, Strasburg should be viewed as having a good chance to become a very good pitcher. But not more. No pitcher taken in the first four overall picks has ever won a Cy Young Award or made more than two all-star teams. Worst of all, major health concerns, such as the elbow surgery that top Nats prospect Jordan Zimmermann now needs, demonstrate the fragility of pitchers. Bid high. But beware. The No. 2 overall pick next year as compensation may be almost as good.

If I were Scott Boras, Strasburg's agent, I wouldn't accept less than $22 million. That would double the biggest contract in the history of the draft ($10.8 million for Mark Teixeira). When the Rangers paid Teixeira in 2001, baseball's total revenues were $3.7 billion. Now they are $6.5 billion, dead even with the NFL. Prices go up. Proportionally, Teixiera's number now would be $19 million. And, as a power pitcher, Strasburg could someday become more of an October game-changer than any hitter. In fact, Boras might justifiably want even more. He believes deeply, not just as a ploy but also on principle, that American amateur-draft players, with no union behind them, have been shafted for decades. This is his chance, maybe the best ever, to redefine a market full of fixed prices.

If I were Strasburg, I don't know what I'd do. But I'd be my pulling hair out. I might sign just before baseball's midnight deadline on Monday, accept an instant fortune and start my career immediately. If he is a great pitcher, he may make 10 times $15 million. Mike Mussina, not the game's biggest name, just retired after earning $144 million. When will Strasburg ever have better leverage? He has gotten the full cover-boy treatment already. Next year, he's old news. And what team will ever be more over a barrel, or have a richer owner, than the worst-in-baseball-again Nats and multi-billionaire owner Ted Lerner?

Or I might reject a final Nats' offer that will almost certainly fall short of what Boras thinks is fair. Do you hire Boras, with a tacit understanding you'll follow his advice, then decide, "It's my career versus your crusade. And I choose me."

Strasburg can play somewhere next year -- an independent league or, conceivably, Japan, though he might be poorly received there -- then reenter the 2010 draft. Maybe his hometown Padres would get him. Maybe a better economy or a different owner would bring a better deal. Besides, he could avoid the Nats if he thinks they are a ship of fools.

So, as you see, we have a big problem here in about 48 hours. The most engrossing baseball drama this season may not be in October. It could come on Monday as that midnight signing deadline approaches. If you think you know how this will play out, then you are far ahead of the actual participants. After talking to Boras for 90 minutes Friday and the Nats about the same, I'm convinced neither knows what the other will do.

Both hope for a deal. Both are worried, but cover it well. Signing contracts, not blowing them up, is their job and their responsibility -- the Nats to their franchise and their fans, Boras to his client. If they don't get a deal done, it's a mammoth failure of adult supervision.

Imagine the grief if no contract gets done. The Strasburg family isn't going to be cheering. Stephen, who met last week in Southern California with Ted Lerner, as well as Nationals President Stan Kasten and interim general manager Mike Rizzo, didn't grow up dreaming of being an Anchorage Glacier Pilot or a Hiroshima Carp.

As for the Lerners, if Strasburg becomes a star for somebody else, they'll still be eating him raw for breakfast, lunch and dinner in 10 years. (I'll be the waiter.) The ticket sales they could lose next year may approach the cost of the contract they'd have given Mr. San Diego State. Multiply 5,000 unsold disillusioned season tickets next year by 81 games at an average price of $40 a ticket. It's $16.2 million. Maybe it won't be quite that bad. But consecutive 100-loss seasons and no Strasburg will be brutal.

Or, of course, the Nats could provide a decent product, get the town excited and maybe that $16.2 million would be coming in the front gate, not out the back door. You could probably even sell Strasburg merchandise. Just guessing. In case his arm gets hurt, Lloyd's of London has an insurance policy. Boras promises he will price one for you.

If Strasburg doesn't sign, the misery will spread in all directions. How long will Kasten remain as president if, after the Nats put $188 million on the table for Teixeira last winter as a free agent, they won't put up a tenth as much for Strasburg? If you were Stan, how long would you stay? His stock, off his Braves dynasty, is still high.

So, as the hours tick down, what do I ultimately think? Partly, I really do understand and appreciate everybody's point of view. The Lerners arrived at the All-Star Game in Commissioner Bud Selig's bus. They are, literally, on the bus with an industry that believes a monopoly is a terrible thing to waste. If a slotting system isn't illegal and it ain't broke, why fix it? As for Boras, he makes a good case that his top clients at the pinnacle of the draft have an unusually high success rate. He can pick 'em. But his comparison of Strasburg to Daisuke Matsuzaka is fatuous. Dice-K was the king of the second-best league on earth. Strasburg didn't even play in the best college league on the West Coast.

Both sides live in an illusory bubble of entitled arrogance. Both sides need a reality check in 48 hours. Here's one for free.

The Lerners need to man up and make an offer that is high enough that Selig will be on the horn at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday screaming about the sanctity of the slotting system. It's the Lerners' job to run their Washington franchise -- and run it a lot better than they have -- not make their other 29 lodge members happy.

Boras needs to drop the pedantic professor of labor relations pose and rejoin the rest of us. There's a recession out there that wakes up every morning in a bad mood trying to decide whether it wants to become a depression. Nobody has any patience with a kid, or his agent, who can't beat Cuba in the Olympics or Virginia in the NCAA tournament, yet thinks he's too good to settle for a mega-millions-lottery contract.

Even Strasburg, the innocent in our tale, needs some cold water. At the All-Star Game, I asked him if he was working on his change-up. He said, "I already have a change-up." I played nice. First impressions. Son, what you've got isn't a change-up. It's a home run in disguise. As for that 102 mph fastball, none of the 200 pitches I've seen topped 98.

In the next day or so, a lot of adults need to lower their testosterone level. And one 21-year-old at the eye of the storm needs to find a quiet place, perhaps with his family, and decide what he really wants. Because, as the hours pass, the two sides are still quite a few million apart. And neither the Nats nor Boras, both smart, both convinced their logic is correct and their position fair, has a stellar history of compromise.

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