The easy part - selecting pitcher Stephen Strasburg with the first pick in Major League Baseball's amateur draft - is over for the Washington Nationals. Now comes the hard part - signing him. Choosing Strasburg was a no-brainer for baseball's worst franchise. A standout for San Diego State University, Strasburg routinely threw his fast ball in excess of 100 mph and averaged almost two strikeouts per inning during his junior year.
Many major league scouts believe Strasburg could go directly to the major leagues without any apprenticeship in the minors, a path seldom taken for high school or college players. More than a few believe he could immediately be a front-of-the-rotation starter. At the very least, Strasburg is a rare talent, the kind which comes along perhaps once in a generation. Of course, Strasburg expects to be compensated accordingly. And that is where things could get tricky for the Nationals.
Washington are 27th among the 30 MLB teams in attendance despite playing in a new ballpark which opened last year, and their minor league system is viewed as one of the weakest in the game. Strasburg could change the Nationals' bleak picture, offering hope for the future and serving as a marquee attraction the moment he makes his major league debut. But he will not come cheaply. Strasburg is represented by super agent Scott Boras.
Boras is a master of contract negotiations, with a demonstrated ability to play one team off another to drive up his clients' salaries. A common ploy of his is to reveal the existence of a "mystery team," late in negotiations, designed to give him 11th hour leverage. Often, the strategy works. When dealing with high school and college players, however, Boras's leverage is somewhat limited. Unlike free agent negotiations in which multiple teams can bid for the services of a given player, a single team holds a draft pick's rights.
That hasn't stopped Boras from leaking information that he expects Strasburg to be the highest-paid signing ever, easily topping the mark set by Mark Prior, who received US$10.5million (Dh38.5m) when selected by the Chicago Cubs in 2001. The two sides have a window in which to work out a deal. If the Nationals and Boras can't come to an agreement by Aug 15, the Nationals will lose their rights to the player and get a compensation pick in next June's draft. Strasburg will have the option of either returning to San Diego State for his final season of eligibility or playing independent minor league ball.
Neither course is very appetising. If Strasburg returns to play college ball, he risks injury and watching his value deteriorate if his senior season doesn't match the level of his junior season. If he plays independent ball, he'll make a meagre salary. And either way, Strasburg will still be subject to the draft again next June, having wasted the year. There's some risk for the Nationals, too. For all of Strasburg's immense potential, there is no guarantee that he will become the dominant pitcher Boras is marketing.
In reality, both sides need one another. The Nationals need a face of the franchise, someone to attract fans and camouflage the fact the team will not be competitive for several seasons. Boras, meanwhile, needs to realise that Strasburg's value will never be higher, and while his client will undoubtedly set a record for the highest signing bonus ever, it will not come close to the figure Boras has been whispering.
Expect a deal to get done eventually. Just don't expect it to be completed until Aug 15. firstname.lastname@example.org