Strasburg vs. Nats is shaping up as biggest battle in draft history
Pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg is the consensus No. 1 pick in Tuesday's draft
His adviser, Scott Boras, is expected to ask for a record-shattering $50 million
The Nationals may be thinking more along the lines of the $10.5 million mark
A Washington Nationals official pretended on Sunday not to know a thing about Stephen Strasburg, the San Diego State pitching phenom who's expected to go first to the Nats in Tuesday's draft. "What's Tuesday? Who's Strasburg?'' he said, feigning ignorance.
Strasburg, meanwhile, has stopped corresponding with a buddy who works for MLB. "He's shut it down,'' the friend said. The friend assumes the Strasburg strategy is to bunker up.
Everyone involved understands now what's coming next is the amateur Armageddon.
The negotiations between the Nationals and Strasburg's adviser, Scott Boras, are getting crazy, and technically they haven't even started yet.
People familiar with Boras' thinking expect the asking price to be $50 million, which would blow away the $10.5 million record for an amateur. While the best amateur prospects, such as Mark Prior, Mark Teixeira and David Price, all have signed in the $10 million range, Boras is expected to use Japanese import Daisuke Matsuzaka, who received $52 million from Boston after the Red Sox paid a $51 million posting fee, as the real Strasburg comp. Boras will argue Strasburg, who turns 21 next month, shouldn't receive anything less than the 28-year-old Matsuzaka (also a Boras client), that he is as good (or better since he's younger and throws harder) and that the dynamic is the same.
"There are rare opportunities for franchises to obtain a talent that is extraordinary," Boras said Monday. "In most instances, those opportunities come via free agency. Teams that capitalize on these opportunities can sway the competitive balance.''
As a free agent, some estimate Strasburg could garner something approaching $100 million, even though he hasn't pitched at any level above the Mountain West Conference. But as an amateur draftee, well, let's just say it's going to be interesting.
The Nationals are sending signals that they're intending to try to adhere to draft precedent and are thinking more along the lines of the $10.5 million mark, which could blow up negotiations. There are still those who wonder whether the Nationals might pass on the expense and angst expected to accompany the Strasburg pick and take someone else, perhaps Dustin Ackley, who plays first base for North Carolina but is projected as a center fielder (something else that the Nats need). But an early tipoff of Washington's seriousness regarding Strasburg occurred back on Feb. 20, when three members of the Nationals'-owning Lerner family flew from Washington to Los Angeles to watch Strasburg dominate Bethune-Cookman at the Urban Youth Academy in Compton, Calif. Nothing has changed since, except that Strasburg's value has gone up.
While the Nationals appear well on their way to the worst record in baseball again, 82-year-old billionaire owner Ted Lerner is widely respected in the game and thought to be fully committed to winning. So a pass on Strasburg would be a shock. Seattle and San Diego (Strasburg's hometown team) follow Washington at picks Nos. 2 and 3, and while some previous amateurs who sought large bonuses dropped precipitously (Rick Porcello fell all the way to No. 29, and the Tigers got him for what seems like a pittance -- $7.3 million -- now that he's a 20-year-old pitching successfully in the majors), that isn't expected to happen here.
Strasburg's fastball consistently reaches the upper 90s after he threw only around 90 mph in high school (he has hit 100-103 on many occasions), he has a "legit hammer'' (curve ball) in the words of one Nationals person and wows scouts by carrying his stuff into the late innings. One scout marveled at Strasburg hitting 99 mph in the ninth inning of a recent game. "No one does that,'' the scout said. Well, except maybe closers.
Strasburg's once-in-a-decade arm is said to have been treated with comparative kid gloves by Tony Gwynn, the Hall of Fame player who is San Diego State's head coach. Strasburg is also described by people close to him as relatively egoless. And, according to a family friend, he is smart enough to have been recruited by Harvard, Yale and Stanford before deciding to stay close to home at San Diego State.
Yet, for all the accolades heaped on Strasburg, the history of ballyhooed amateur pitchers is no better than mixed. Thomas Boswell of The Washington Post studied former No. 1-overall picks who were pitchers, and while several, such as Andy Benes, Mike Moore and Floyd Bannister, had nice, long careers, not one who went first was a perennial All-Star or a Hall of Famer. In the 40-plus-year history of the draft, the best pitchers taken in the top five were probably Josh Beckett, Kevin Brown and Dwight Gooden, and Beckett's the only one with a chance to reach Cooperstown. Some others who were picked No. 1 or considered a phenom flamed out, such as Brien Taylor, Todd Van Poppel, David Clyde and Matt Harrington, who never signed. Boras is likely to draw a distinction between college and high school pitchers, however.
The $50 million figure still might actually be considered low if Strasburg were a free agent and could sign with anyone. But since he'll be tied to one team, the guesses of baseball executives generally range from the low- to mid-$20 millions, up to one National League executive predicting $30 million. Of course from the Nationals' perspective, if they go to even $15 million, that's still about a 45 percent rise above the record of $10.5 million, which is what John Boggs got for hotshot USC pitcher Mark Prior, who coincidentally was also a right-hander out of San Diego.
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