By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 17, 2009
CINCINNATI, Aug. 16 -- Peel away the excess -- the tangled story lines that have turned a single pitcher into a referendum on an organization's competence and an agent's ingenuity -- and Stephen Strasburg is simply a 21-year-old with a decision to make. It's his decision, those who know him insist. It's his alone. He has spent 69 days as an unsigned draft pick of the Washington Nationals, an extended pause before the verdict, and that pause can last no longer.
By midnight Monday, the deadline for draft-pick signing, Strasburg must make up his mind, yes or no. Few decisions are simpler, and yet few carry more weight.
Yes, and Strasburg becomes the richest amateur in the history of his sport. He doesn't just join an organization; he becomes its identity. He begins his professional career, and Strasburg's great talent advertises its force: Radar guns hit triple digits and stadiums fill and Washington's future brightens.
No, and Strasburg walks away from a lot of money. He becomes a trailblazer for boldness, banking that his ability -- he is certainly the most heralded college pitcher since Mark Prior in 2001, and perhaps the best in draft history -- can earn him more money elsewhere, likely in the 2010 draft. He becomes, also, a driving point for all sorts of emotion. If Strasburg doesn't sign, all parties involved -- agent Scott Boras, president Stan Kasten, team owners Mark and Ted Lerner -- will try to explain the rationale. Boras will talk about Strasburg's free market value, and the way Major League Baseball's draft system -- which international prospects are not subject to -- unjustly prevents him from realizing that value. Washington will mention the risk of young pitching arms, and the wisdom of drawing a line. But none will be better off.
One person alone, if he so chooses, can save everybody from the repercussions of a failed deal. Stephen James Strasburg, before he became an Olympian or an ESPY nominee or a client who Boras describes as "glorious," was just a chubby high schooler who wasn't drafted after graduating from West Hills High School. But he worked hard. He went to college, playing for idol Tony Gwynn at San Diego State. He lost weight and added velocity. Even as a junior, he raked the field with his teammates after practices. He went to dinner at Chili's with his dad after games. His affection for baseball runs so deep, he has guessed he wears his mitt -- even if just for a minute -- every day of the year.
So what does Strasburg want now, before he can play baseball as a pro? The Nationals have already offered him a record deal for an amateur, and though the specific amount remains unknown, it exceeds the $10.5 million awarded to Prior in 2001. It also isn't good enough. If Strasburg is to sign, a source said, the offer must grow. Washington's current offer has been on the table since the team's ownership group, along with Kasten and acting general manager Mike Rizzo, traveled to California last week to meet with the pitcher.
Almost all involved, to this point, expect the negotiations to go down to the final hours, if not the final minutes. Predicting the outcome is far tougher than predicting its timing.
"It's his decision," Strasburg's mother, Kathy Swett, said on Sunday. "I know he wants to play baseball. I don't know what else to say. We know it's gonna get down to the wire; I've never been through this before. I'm not sure how everything will pan out. I know Scott will talk to Stephen. There will be a conversation at some point."
Strasburg's decision will reverberate at almost every level of the Washington organization, largely dictating the perception of the franchise among the fan base, across Major League Baseball, and even, to a degree, within the clubhouse.
"If you're an organization that is going in the right direction and wants to get better, you have to sign No. 1 draft picks," said Ryan Zimmerman, the third baseman who was a first-round selection in 2005. "You draft them for a reason, and I think it will be a very important day -- not just for the organization, but to gain credibility throughout the league."
Already, the Nationals have an extensive history with Strasburg. At least one member of the scouting department watched every start Strasburg made this year at San Diego State, where he went 13-1, leading the nation in ERA (1.32) and strikeouts. Washington's managing principal owner Ted Lerner and his son, Mark, watched Strasburg's first start of the season. The one time Rizzo saw him pitch, he threw a no-hitter -- the first of his career. Just last week, the Lerners, along with Kasten and Rizzo, traveled to San Diego for a face-to-face visit.
The 83-year-old Ted Lerner, a billionaire from the real estate business, has owned the Washington franchise for three years -- a period that includes a new ballpark, a 100-loss season, a circus failure to sign a draft pick (2008 first-rounder Aaron Crow), a general manager's resignation and a manager's firing. Lerner has the reputation as a scrupulous businessman -- at least in the real estate industry -- but he has also authorized some encouraging moves within the past year. The Nationals made a bold, $188 million bid for free agent first baseman Mark Teixeira in the offseason, later signing Adam Dunn for $20 million. In the attempt to sign Teixeira, Lerner dealt personally with Boras, who represented the slugger.
Boras, in conversations with Lerner, has been blunt, according to a source close to the negotiations -- and that has continued in talks regarding Strasburg. The agent's general message: With this baseball team, the Lerner family name is at stake. Moments like this will determine Ted Lerner's legacy as an owner.
Boras clients have a lengthy history of testing clubs' patience and nerves. In 2007, top-five picks Mike Moustakas (Kansas City) and Matt Wieters (Baltimore) didn't sign until after 11:50 p.m. on deadline day, and in Wieters's case, Baltimore executives patently believed, for much of the final day, that a deal wouldn't get done. This year, Boras advises the top three picks, including Dustin Ackley (Seattle) and Donovan Tate (San Diego). Those negotiations, too, could go down to the wire.
But Strasburg is in a distinct category.
Well before Strasburg finished his college season or Washington drafted him, Boras discussed the right-hander not as a peer among college pitchers, but as a peer among other (rarer) pitchers who sprang straight from the international market into big league rotations. Daisuke Matsuzaka earned a $52 million deal from the Boston Red Sox in such a situation.
So far this summer, Strasburg has said little about negotiations or his thinking, per Boras's advice. He has never confessed to following the Nationals' progress. In a news conference one day after he was drafted, the secrecy rose to a new level, when he declined to disclose the location of his summer workouts. In an interview before the season began, Strasburg was similarly guarded about his specific career path to professional baseball -- he even kept open the option of returning to college for his senior year -- but this much he acknowledged: "My No. 1 goal is to get to the big leagues, whatever opportunity I get."
And could he see himself in the big leagues by September 2009?
"I'd like to think so," he said.