By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 18, 2009 1:37 AM
Midnight neared, an organization held its breath, and finally -- after way too much losing, years of scouting, and weeks of negotiating -- the Washington Nationals secured the one good thing to come from all of it. They reached a deal with No. 1 draft pick Stephen Strasburg. No team has ever paid more to an amateur. And perhaps no team has ever gained more by signing one of its draft picks.
The contract with Strasburg -- a four-year deal worth $15.1 million, plus incentives -- gives Washington, at once, the most hyped college pitcher in a generation and a legitimizing down payment on its build-with-young-talent blueprint. For weeks, the pitcher and the organization had been locked into the highest-stakes contract negotiations in amateur history, and the 11th-hour deal left both sides on edge deep into the night, as the midnight deadline approached. But at 11:58 p.m. -- or, specifically, 11:58 and 43 seconds -- the sides, speaking by phone, agreed to terms, clearing the way for Strasburg to begin his professional career and for Washington to enter an era very much tied to the career of its newest, richest player.
"People thought it would take until the last minute," Washington team president Stan Kasten said. "We didn't even need that last minute."
In the end, the Nationals' offer to Strasburg far exceeded the record for an amateur draftee, the $10.5 million awarded to Mark Prior in 2001. The team's ability to complete a deal will surely gratify Washington's fan base and elevate its respect level through the league. Washington's plan for Strasburg remains incomplete. The 21-year-old hasn't pitched since his college season at San Diego State ended in May, so his ability to ramp up his arm for competitive baseball in August or September remains uncertain. Within a day or two, though, perhaps as early as Tuesday, Strasburg will fly to Washington for an introductory news conference.
"We're just going to let him get his feet on the ground here in Washington, D.C., and we'll figure out a plan for him in the very near future," acting general manager Mike Rizzo said.
The to-the-wire dealings with Strasburg were not necessarily a surprise, especially given the standard operating procedure of adviser Scott Boras, but Washington, too, was evaluating a franchise-defining decision. According to those involved in negotiations, the process to complete a deal took its first major step some 1 1/2 weeks ago, when Kasten, Rizzo, and owners Ted and Mark Lerner flew to California to meet with the pitcher. The Washington group came away with at least one impression: The kid wanted to pitch.
"The reason he signed -- he wants to be in the big leagues, he wants to be a Washington National, he wants to win a Cy Young award and he wants to win championships in D.C." Rizzo said. "That's the reason he signed with us here. Money was a nice perk and a nice byproduct for him, but he's here to pitch. He's chomping at the bit to get on the mound. He's ultra-ultra competitive, and I think he was getting a little tired of sitting around the house."
On Monday, Rizzo, Kasten and the Lerners met at Nationals Park at 9 a.m. A long day began. As the sides talked, Washington increased its offer -- originally around $12 million. Rizzo was the lead negotiator for Washington, but Ted Lerner remained at the stadium all night.
"I think what I kept saying to Scott was that Stephen wants to play," Rizzo said. "We want to have Stephen. There's a deal to be made here, and it's a deal somewhere in the middle here."
For some time now, Strasburg had been something far different than a regular draftee. He threw the 109th and final inning of his college season on May 29, and when he walked off the mound, he temporarily abandoned life as a pitcher. In the period that followed -- straight through Monday's midnight signing deadline for drafted amateurs -- Strasburg was the target of negotiations that only gained momentum toward their endpoint, kept all parties waiting, and put Strasburg's professional career in a holding pattern.
Those final hours of negotiations were the inevitable endpoint -- the landmark visible from way across the horizon, where the Strasburg-Nationals relationship began. Even last September, as Washington sank toward a major league-worst 102-loss season, then-general manager Jim Bowden talked of Strasburg as a clear-cut phenomenon. Those in his scouting department agreed. Twelve scouts who evaluated him each turned in the same conclusion: Strasburg was a future No. 1 starter.
Boras, who became Strasburg's adviser after the right-hander had finished his freshman year at San Diego State, priced accordingly. In March, while Strasburg was merely beginning his junior season, Boras first floated the number that would become as much a part of the pitcher's identity as his 102-mph fastball. Roughly $50 million: That's the contract Boras thought Strasburg deserved.
Though the benchmark figure was inconceivable, its hyperbole made the necessary point. Boras wanted for Strasburg something special, something precedent-setting. The 2008 No. 1 pick, high school shortstop Tim Beckham (Tampa Bay), had received $6.15 million. The 2007 No. 1 pick, Vanderbilt pitcher David Price (Tampa Bay), had received $5.6 million.
Strasburg, the thinking went, belonged in a different category -- not so much an example of how first overall picks should be paid, but rather, an example of how once-in-a-generation talents should be paid.
The expected difficulty of signing Strasburg didn't deter the Nationals from selecting him. On June 9, just minutes after 6 p.m., Washington selected Strasburg and began the intricate negotiating dance. Already, fans of the team had known of Strasburg's name for months.
Figuring out how much to offer -- and how desperately they needed him -- required some careful deliberation. The history of hyped pitchers, by itself, stood as a warning sign for caution. Ben McDonald (1989) and Brien Taylor (1991) and Prior (2001) were all, at various points, described as future rotation anchors. None ever fulfilled that promise.
But Washington also faced pressure from another side. In 2008, the organization had failed to reach a deal with first-round pick Aaron Crow, a pitcher from Missouri. The delays and missteps in those negotiations lent a telling reminder of what can go wrong in last-second deals. Alan and Randy Hendricks, who represented Crow, only gave their first proposed number on August 12, 2008, with about 60 hours left before the deadline. Crow, they said, wanted $9 million. Until the final day, Washington never offered more than $2.25 million.
Only at 11:44 p.m. on deadline night did Crow's demands drop from $9 million to $4.4 million. Crow, at the last minute, dropped the demand to $4 million, but Washington wouldn't go higher than $3.5 million.
This time, just at the deadline, the sides found a reason for celebration, not a reason for dismay.
"Unreal!" Strasburg's mother, Kathy Swett, said in a text message.
Said Rizzo: "The Lerner family stepped up here and gave us the resources to sign the most lucrative amateur player contract in the history of the draft. That says a big statement to the city of Washington, D.C., and to the commitment that the Lerner family has to winning championships here in Washington. The easiest thing in the world was to stick to more of a slotted type of system and try and hold the line, staying a little ahead of last year's No. 1 pick. They opened their checkbook to try to bring a winning, championship-type of player to the Washington, D.C. area."