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Posted: Monday March 30, 2009 12:24PM; Updated: Monday March 30, 2009 4:01PM
Jon Heyman Jon Heyman >

Projected No. 1 pick Strasburg's $50 million figure and more (cont.)

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Stephen Strasburg and Tony Gwynn
San Diego State coach Tony Gwynn (right) has taken great care of fireballer Stephen Strasburg (left).
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A couple top collegians represented by Boras have declined to sign after being selected and offered million-dollar bonuses, including J.D. Drew and Jason Varitek. But only rare players such as those two have the fortitude to try it.

Strasburg looks like a sure thing right now. But as esteemed Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell recently pointed out, the history of highly drafted pitchers is spotty. As Boswell mentioned, none of the No. 1-overall picks who were pitchers is headed to the Hall (Andy Benes, Tim Belcher, Mike Moore and Floyd Banister were the best No. 1-overall picks as pros), though the record of the top-five picks is a lot better (Josh Beckett, Kevin Brown and Dwight Gooden are among pitchers picked in the top five).

No matter, Boras apparently will try to make the case that Strasburg is otherworldly, and specifically that he is at least the equal of Matsuzaka, who got his $52 million after the Red Sox paid a $51 million posting fee. Boras will make the case Strasburg already has a top-five fastball, and top-five stuff overall, and that, unlike Matsuzaka, he's been treated with kid gloves throughout his formative years. Boras declined to discuss the upcoming negotiations or his suspected target figure but did gush about how Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, the San Diego State coach, has treated Strasburg. Gwynn pitches him only once a week, and never for more than 115 pitches.

If the Nationals do take Strasburg, as expected, there are at least a few factors in Boras' favor. While Kasten has been a longtime nemesis and isn't anxious to break ranks with what MLB wants, the Lerners generally have shown they are willing to pay for young talent. Plus Boras apparently had a very amicable, high-level negotiation this winter with Nationals owner Ted Lerner regarding Teixeira (though Teixeira went to the Yankees for $180 million, Washington is believed to have signaled a willingness to pay at least that, and probably more) and also seems to have a talent ally in Mike Rizzo, who's now handling interim GM duties for Washington and personally has experienced success drafting Boras clients as Arizona's scouting director (Stephen Drew, Max Scherzer).

The Nationals also will face tremendous pressure to sign Strasburg after failing to sign No. 1 draft choice Aaron Crow last year (National sources say Rizzo and deposed GM Jim Bowden argued to come much closer to or meet Crow's asking price, but Kasten/ownership cut off negotiations at $3.3 million). The pressure is even greater after Bowden was forced out following the revelation first reported by that the $1.4 million bonus believed to be given to a fake person called Esmailyn Gonzalez, 19, really went to a 23-year-old impostor named Carlos Alvarez. Some might suggest it's time they spend big bucks on a real deal.

The Nationals have the money (Ted Lerner has been estimated to be baseball's richest owner at about $4.5 billion, though in this falling economy it's difficult to gauge anyone's true net worth), and they certainly have the need. But they also have history on their side. That history says amateur players get $10 million tops. Strasburg should beat that figure. But the question is by how much.

Nats feel like they have a fresh start since Bowden left

Things have loosened up and are a lot more relaxed around the Nationals since Bowden was forced to resign following the Gonzalez/Alvarez revelation.

"Things are much better around here," one Nationals person whispered to me.

Is it because Bowden's not here? "I won't say that," Kasten said. "Jim's going through things personally. I expect him to be fully exonerated. He's assured me he will."

Kasten did agree that things seem different around the team. "But I wouldn't personalize it," he stressed. "Whenever there are questions or confusion, and it's cleared up, that's a good thing."

Well, here's one big question going around baseball: What took them so long? (That's a hard question for Kasten to answer since the press release said Bowden resigned; of course, we all know he was forced out.)

And one more question: How did Bowden last 15 years as a baseball general manager between Cincinnati and Washington when he alienated a large percentage of people in the game through more than a decade of dicey dealings, temper tantrums and inconsistent behavior?

Many of the folks who worked for Bowden admired his smarts and knowledge. But others speak of a Jekyll-and-Hyde personality that didn't help matters. "You never knew whether you were going to get the good Jim or the bad Jim," one former Nationals person said.

But beyond all the personality issues surrounding Bowden, and beyond the skimming issue currently being investigated by MLB and the FBI (and Bowden has maintained he's innocent), as one AL scout said, "He's left a mess ... There are some issues."

One issue that's more a symbol of the Bowden years is that Gonzalez/Alvarez is having "visa problems." That should be no surprise since traveling as an impostor is generally frowned upon.

Another issue is Bowden liked to collect tools outfielders, so the organization is left with an extreme excess of outfielders with great ability and little track record. They also have no proven center fielder. Scouts say Lastings Milledge isn't really a center fielder, but Kasten said "he's our guy for now." In any case, they are in the midst of trying to trade one or a few of these extra outfielders.

A bigger problem is not enough capable major-league pitchers, which necessitated them taking talented Jordan Zimmerman (whom Kasten, using Washington-ese, now calls "the presumptive fifth starter"). "We didn't want to take him," one other Nationals person said. They had no choice.

Nonetheless, things do seem much better lately with the Nats, even though baseball people figure to see another last-place finish in perhaps baseball's toughest division. Kasten said "there's an air of positive energy" and "things are smooth and professional and moving in the right direction." He attributes the improvement to "all the youth on the team," though, and not Bowden's exit.

It may be a little of each. Anyway, the Nats are better with a fresh start, and the new baseball operations chief Mike Rizzo brings the scouting expertise a team starting at the bottom absolutely needs. While sources say a person close to Kasten tried hard to get Kasten to consider Chuck LaMar (whose claim to fame is to finish last so often in Tampa Bay that it kept getting the top draft choice) for the GM job, Kasten will only say that he's had "many, many applicants" for the job that Rizzo's currently manning.

Kasten won't say this, but those other folks are probably wasting their breath, as Rizzo is said by baseball sources to have the support of the Lerners and is expected to eventually get the job full time. It's believed the Lerners were the ones who picked Bowden, so they have nowhere to go but up. Rizzo probably deserves the chance, anyway.

"I'm enjoying it," Rizzo said of his new role. "It's a big job. But I feel I'm prepared for it."

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