With deadline looming, Nationals have a ways to go with Strasburg
It remains a distinct possibility that the sides will not agree by Monday night
There seems to be some extra negativity surrounding these talks
Executives say Strasburg might be worth $50 million as a free agent
Guesses from a multitude of executives around baseball for ballyhooed/deified No. 1 pick Stephen Strasburg's eventual signing bonus have ranged from $12 million to $30 million. Every estimate represents a record bonus.
But here is another possibility: zero dollars.
With only a long weekend to go before the signing deadline, there's no evidence of progress in the negotiations between the rebuilding Nationals and Strasburg's agent, Scott Boras. It's possible the sides will not agree by midnight Monday, and that Strasburg will go unsigned and re-enter the draft pool in 2010.
These big-ticket draft deals almost invariably go down to the last few hours (or minutes), but there seems to be some extra negativity surrounding the Strasburg talks.
Nationals president Stan Kasten didn't return a call, and Boras declined to speak specifically about Strasburg. But Boras, cognizant of the accusation he is slow to agree, did speak generally about the tenor of talks involving his top clients, including six first-rounders this year. "Teams choose to negotiate at a very slow pace," he said. "We merely follow the pace being set."
Only a handful of first-rounders have signed so far, and most of them likely at the parameters of a deal done at draft time. That means the majority of signings will occur in the remaining days or hours before Monday's deadline. Boras' top clients this year include picks No. 1, 2, 3, 9, 13 and 30 in the first round, and while pick No. 3, Cartersville, Ga., high school outfielder Donavan Tate, is thought to be closing in on a deal with the Padres, it's uncertain if any of the others are close. On top of Strasburg and Tate, Boras' other four first-rounders are UNC outfielder Dustin Ackley (Seattle, No. 2), St. Louis high school pitcher Jacob Turner (Detroit, No. 9), USC shortstop Grant Green (Oakland, No. 13), and Gainesville, Fla., Outfielder LeVon Washington (Tampa Bay, No. 30).
The Nationals are thought to be willing to bestow on Strasburg the highest contract ever for an amateur draftee, beating the record $10.5 million of Mark Prior, who, like Strasburg, is a right-hander from San Diego. Boras client Mark Teixeira is one of a few other American amateurs to have signed for about $10 million. There appears to be something of a draft ceiling at $10 million -- so far, anyway.
But Boras sees Strasburg as a once-in-a-generation amateur talent and points out that baseball's revenues are up several fold, to about $6.5 billion, since Teixeira and Prior signed their deals in 2001. While the economy is in the midst of a recession, baseball continues to thrive. Attendance is down only about five percent this year and revenues may actually be flat or slightly up from a year ago.
Boras has heard the arguments that a big bonus for Strasburg will wreck the system. He counters by pointing out that he once got Ben McDonald $1 million, which was four times the previous record bonus of Andy Benes, and that didn't change a thing. Teixeira and Prior received their eight-figure bonuses eight years ago, and those didn't lead to a spate of similar or higher bonuses. In fact, Jeff Samardzija and David Price are among the few players to approach that $10 million figure since.
The Nationals' entire entourage of top decision-makers trekked out to Southern California in recent weeks to make a presentation to Strasburg. But while they may have taken bells and whistles with them, there is no evidence they presented an offer anywhere near the ballpark Strasburg is looking for.
The Nationals will cite the history of previous bonuses, and history has its limits. It also has a mixed record with big bonuses. While pitchers who happened to have been picked No. 1 overall have a rather mediocre record (Mike Moore, Tim Belcher and Benes are among the better ones), the history for drafted players who received bonuses of $5 million or more is almost universally positive, including Teixeira, J.D. Drew, Joe Mauer, Josh Beckett, Price and Rick Porcello. While Prior got hurt, the argument can be made that even he was probably worth that $10.5 million, if only for a good year or two.
Boras can also try to make a case for Strasburg's extraordinary value by citing rare trades of recently drafted prodigies. For instance, if the Nats were to sign Strasburg, then trade him in a year (draftees cannot be traded for one calendar year), Boras could argue they'd get a haul. Well-regarded recent draftees Andrew Miller and Cameron Maybin brought the Tigers a superstar in Miguel Cabrera. So a case could be made that Strasburg, who's considered far more valuable than ether Miller or Maybin, is worth well north of $10 million. The Tigers wouldn't trade Porcello, a Boras client who signed two years ago with the Tigers for a now-bargain $7 million, even for superstar pitcher Roy Halladay.
Executives say Strasburg might be worth $50 million as a free agent. But that is Strasburg's problem: he isn't a free agent.
Word is, Boras has used the bonuses of Daisuke Matsuzaka ($52 million) and Jose Contreras ($32 million) as comparables to Strasburg. Matsuzaka didn't have the leverage of more than one team, either, but management people will point out that he was more accomplished, as the top pitcher in the Japan League (while not the major leagues, the Japan League is much higher quality than San Diego State's Mountain West Conference).
Boras, though, will note that Strasburg, who just turned 21, is five years younger than Matsuzaka was when he signed with Boston, and that Strasburg has better stuff than Matsuzaka. Strasburg has been timed at 100 mph and scouts say he has a devastating breaking ball as well. Even a Nationals person said, "He throws 98 and has a legit hammer [curve]." Boras doesn't see why Strasburg should get less than Matsuzaka.
"Major League teams, in the best interest of baseball, must stop penalizing American boys and American families," Boras said. "The fact of being born in the United States should not result in a dramatic diminution of value, even though your talent exceeds that of a talent born elsewhere."
The issue for American players is leverage -- they don't have much of it. Japan seems like a long shot for Strasburg (though technically, Boston's signing of Junichi Tazawa would seem to open that door). While one person close to the San Diego kid (not Boras) said "he likes sushi," that appeared to have been mostly a joke. The more realistic second option to signing would be to sit out the year and try again next year.
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