- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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It's a story that's been stuck in time for two shockingly quiet months.
But not for long.
In a week, we might find Stephen Strasburg standing at a podium with a smile on his face, a Washington Nationals cap on his head, a record bonus check in his bank account and a brilliant career ahead of him.
Or, then again, maybe not.
In a week, we might find the No. 1 pick in the draft headed back to school. Or to the St. Paul Saints. Or, either way, to a long, controversial year in baseball limbo -- as the second-guessers take aim at him, at the team that couldn't sign him and at his bottom-line-obsessed agent, Scott Boras.
So which will it be? Which way will this epic baseball showdown turn out? We'll find out Monday night -- or possibly very early Tuesday morning -- when the signing deadline for America's most ballyhooed pitching prospect finally arrives.
The clock ticks. The negotiations continue. The baseball world watches. And not much hangs in the balance. Only the fate of a floundering franchise. And the pro career of a kid the world can't wait to see. Not to mention the future of the entire draft.
It's all hinging on the final hours of this mesmerizing poker game between Boras and a franchise he's now increasingly bad-mouthing behind the scenes.
Logically, we know how this ought to turn out. Our Rumblings pollsters surveyed 18 baseball men from across the sport -- a group that included agents, scouting directors, GMs and other baseball executives. All but two of them predicted Strasburg will sign with the Nationals, probably about 14 seconds before the deadline, and for far less than the absurd $50 million figure Boras has been floating for months.
But most of those we surveyed admitted they're just guessing. And what we found was this: The closer these folks have followed these negotiations, the more dubious they are that this is going to have a happy ending.
"I think he signs," said an official of one AL club. "But at this point, I think it's only about 50-50."
And why is it only 50-50? Because this official has heard too much talk, from people who have spoken with Boras, about the negativity Strasburg's agent is spewing about the Nationals.
So what are Boras' issues?
That, allegedly, the Nationals haven't budged at all off their initial offer, believed to be somewhere in the neighborhood of the $9.5 million package the Rangers gave to Mark Teixeira eight long years ago.
That, allegedly, the Nationals are a lousy team, with no fans and a bleak future.
And that, theoretically, Strasburg has tremendous incentive not to sign, because if he goes back into the draft, there's an excellent chance he could get picked next year by his hometown team, the Padres. (Fact-check alert: That might be true. But if the season ended now, the Padres wouldn't draft in June until after the Nationals, Royals, Pirates and Orioles.)
"I don't think he'll sign," said one California-based agent. "I just get the impression that Scott's thinking, and now Strasburg's thinking, that the Padres are going to have the second pick next year. So if he can't sign with the Nationals, it will work out better, because he'll wind up in San Diego."
But the overwhelming majority of people we surveyed don't see it that way. So let's present a sampling of their "of course he'll sign" insights:
• From an NL executive: "I just think he's nuts if he doesn't. I don't see how he makes things any better for himself if he goes to Japan or the Northern League or anywhere else. I just don't see any logic to him not signing."
• From an AL scouting director: "Washington can't defer this pick. There are just too many things in play that make it seem like it should get done. How can you look your fans in the eye in a year when you have a chance to sign the best pitching prospect in years, maybe ever, and try to explain why you didn't sign him?"
• From a longtime agent: "The two main forces driving this deal are (A) after not signing [last year's first-round pick] Aaron Crow Washington is under a lot of pressure to sign this guy, and (B) I believe if ego can be put aside, Boras understands the tremendous risk Strasburg would take on if he were to go out and pitch elsewhere, whether it be professionally or at San Diego State. It's the risk/reward question. What are the chances that Strasburg's value will ever be higher than it is right now?"
Rationally, it seems like the answer to that question ought to be simple: Zero. How, in a sane world, could anyone possibly argue that Strasburg would be worth more after a year in limbo than he's worth now? Sound thinking -- except this is Scott Boras running this production.
"And I know Scott's track record," said one former scouting director who put the signing odds at only 60-40. "I know he will walk from a very good deal. He's had success in the past with walking away, holding out and getting his guys money a year later. So it wouldn't surprise me if he did it again."
"They're going to have to pay him," said an AL scouting director. "I don't see the Boras Corporation selling short on this guy. I see Scott going for a big hit, or he's going to walk away."
Ah, but what constitutes a "big hit" in the case of the most ballyhooed amateur pitcher ever? Only Boras really knows for sure. What we do know is that the biggest package ever given any drafted player is the $10.5 million the Cubs handed Mark Prior in 2001. But all 18 people we surveyed predicted Strasburg would blow away that record. What they differed on was by how much.
The lowest number predicted was $12 million. Most of the guesses came in between $15 million and $20 million. But there were a couple at $25 million. And one scouting director said even $30 million wouldn't shock him.
"If I'm Washington," he said, "I'm going to view the guy like a major league free agent who can come in and be my fourth starter right off the bat. So I probably wouldn't be upset if they give him a four-year deal at $30 million."
Now think about that number for a second. If Stephen Strasburg, a guy who has never thrown a professional pitch, were to get $30 million, that's $10 million more than Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz and Andy Pettitte were guaranteed combined for this season. So how crazy is that?
"Is it a crazy number? Yes," said one AL official. "But if I'm the Washington Nationals, in my second year in a new ballpark that nobody's going to, with the worst record in baseball, and we just lost Jordan Zimmermann for a year, we've got no choice. If we don't sign the guy, our fan base just walks away."
So is there insane pressure on the Nationals to get this done, for all those reasons? Absolutely. But that doesn't mean there isn't pressure on Boras and Strasburg, too.
For one thing, the track record of pitchers who spit on the money and go back in the draft a year later isn't real good. You can consult the Luke Hochevar and Matt Harrington bios for more details. But as one agent put it:
"These guys who don't [sign], a lot of them don't come back to be the player we thought they'd be. Look at Hochevar. He's never been That Guy. It's a timing game. Once you lose that element, you're swimming upstream. And the salmon don't even do that for a living."
The salmon might beg to differ, actually. But the important thing to remember here is that players play. They love to play. They live to play. They don't live to make economic history. And even if the Nationals make what Boras might consider a "lowball" offer -- at, say, $20 million -- that's still an insane amount of money.
"He has to sign now," said one NL executive. "Now is the only time. If he does anything else, it's going to look like greed. I mean, it's not like they're trying to lowball him. They're going to make him the highest-paid guy ever in the history of the draft."
Now there's no reason to think that The Greed Factor, and how it will play, ever shows up on Boras' radar screen. But how can a number like $20 million -- for a kid in the draft -- not show up on the player's radar screen?
It may be a long ways from $50 million. But we're betting it's still more than the entire class of 2009 at San Diego State will make combined this year. And, in the words of one longtime agent, "I do not see the kid -- or any kid I know-- turning that down."
And we don't either. So let's assume he doesn't. Suppose, on Monday night, Stephen Strasburg becomes the first $20 million man in draft history. How would that rattle baseball's Richter Scale? Our panel debated that question mightily, too.
It would have very little impact, said one agent, "because MLB will maintain that he is the exception, talentwise, and the Nationals had to give their fan base a hope for the future."
An AL exec essentially agreed, saying Strasburg's number would affect next year's likely No. 1 pick, Sports Illustrated cover boy Bryce Harper, but no one else.
But that's the narrow view. The reality is this: Once Stephen Strasburg makes draft history with whatever ridiculous amount he signs for, it will be -- as we predicted weeks ago -- a draft-altering event.
This, said one scouting director, will be the event that "finally gets the attention of the owners and makes this draft a front-burner issue." And by that, he means owners are almost certain to use Strasburg's package as the impetus to demand major changes in the draft in the next labor deal -- starting with a formal slotting system for all picks.
"In 2011, this will be the issue baseball will stand and die over," one club official predicted. "We have to have a slotting system. And the union will have an impossible time resisting that because their players don't want the money going to guys like this."
We think he's absolutely right. And in a few days, when the rubble from these negotiations finally settles to earth, you'll be hearing a lot more talk just like that.
So enjoy these last couple of days of silence on the Strasburg front -- because they won't last long. No matter how this saga turns out, it's going to rock the baseball world -- and not just the part of it that Stephen Strasburg dwells in.
Ready to rumble
• The Smoltz Watch: If the Red Sox wind up releasing John Smoltz, which seems likely, the list of teams interested in signing him for the prorated minimum salary might be larger than people think. A number of clubs were gathering information on Smoltz this week -- from the teams we've heard a lot about (the Rangers and Dodgers) to teams we haven't (the Marlins and Astros).
But one of the big questions is: Does the 2009 edition of John Smoltz profile better as a starter or as a reliever? The numbers suggest he ought to head back to the bullpen. Over his past seven starts, his ERA over the first two innings was 0.64, and opponents hit just .196 against him.
"What I saw," said one scout who watched him recently, "is, the first time through the order, it's good."
There have been some indications that Smoltz would consider a return to the 'pen if it was the right team and the right situation. But even as a bullpen weapon, Smoltz would have his limitations.
"You'd be signing him to be a multi-inning guy who could maybe pitch two or three innings," said an official of one team with back-burner interest. "But the problem is, then he'd have to sit for two or three days. You couldn't use him back-to-back."
Nevertheless, he's still John Smoltz, one of the most intelligent and competitive pitchers of his time. So he could help some of these teams just by walking through the door.
"Can you imagine the impact he could make on a team like Florida?" mused one exec. "How valuable would he be to the young guys on that staff, just to be around him and pick his brain?"
• Beware the Padilla: Meanwhile, it's funny how you're not hearing the same glowing reviews on Vicente Padilla, another talented arm who is almost certain to become a free agent once the Rangers determine once and for all that they can't deal him. But for a guy whose stuff is still good, it's astounding how terrified teams seem to be by the rest of Padilla's loose-cannon act.
"Here's a team [Texas] that needs pitching, and they let a guy like that go?" said one NL executive. "What's that tell you?"
"They're tied in the wild card, and nobody has enough pitching, and they owe the guy money, and they still didn't want him around?" wondered another NL exec. "It just makes you wonder: How bad was it?"
• The road to Rios: Maybe the White Sox outfoxed the world on Alex Rios. Maybe he's going to wake up and earn every nickel of the $61.6 million they now have to pay him through 2014. But the tales we've heard from ex-teammates, and people who watched him coast through life in Toronto, make you wonder.
Rios is guaranteed $12 million to $12.5 million every year from 2011 to 2014. And that's star money. But is he magically going to turn back into a star just because he's playing for Ozzie Guillen, in a hitters' paradise? Not if these reviews from ex-teammates are accurate:
• "He's not a winning-type player. He's a guy who just doesn't have that burning desire to win, or be great."
• "He was a guy who just didn't go after it. He'd be sleeping in his locker 10 minutes before he had to go out on the field. And not just once."
• "He wasn't the same player after he got that [seven-year] contract. It sure seemed like he was a lot more motivated when he was looking for a contract than he was since he got the contract."
Meanwhile, scouts we surveyed seemed dubious, too.
"This guy should be a perennial 30-30 [HR-SB] guy," said one. "But to me, he's a classic underachiever. If Ozzie takes the wrong approach, he's going to lose him. He's a guy you've got to go real slow with. But whether Ozzie has that kind of patience, boy, I don't know."
• Don't say goodbye: If Rios' arrival means the end of Jim Thome's run with the White Sox, scouts we've surveyed say Thome should have no trouble finding a job in his quest for 600 homers. Thome is still slugging .500, with a .383 on-base percentage, and only eight other AL hitters can match him in both categories.
"He's still lethal at times," said one scout. "He's not as dangerous as he used to be. But he should wind up with another American League team as a DH. And believe me, you could do a lot worse. Even at his age, he's still one of the better ones."
• Still home for the Halladays: We keep hearing talk out of Arlington that the Rangers' deal for Roy Halladay fell apart only when Texas was informed that Halladay wouldn't approve a trade to the Rangers. But Blue Jays officials have consistently told people on other clubs that they never had an offer from Texas that got them close enough to a deal to even bother asking Halladay if he'd be willing to go.
In fact, the only Halladay trade the Blue Jays have told folks they thought they had a real shot at finishing off was with the Phillies -- until the Cliff Lee deal came along. Once the Phillies found themselves with that attractive a Plan B, at a more palatable cost, it eliminated any chance they'd have come back to Toronto and meet the Blue Jays' price on Halladay.
• Those insatiable Yankees: Even after adding Chad Gaudin, Russ Ortiz and Jason Hirsh, the Yankees were still poking around, looking for starting pitching depth on the waiver-wire circuit this week. But they appear to have no interest in the two high-priced Reds pitchers who cleared: Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo. And we're hearing they're not one of the clubs with Smoltz on their shopping list. Then again, after mugging him for eight runs in 3 1/3 innings last week, why would they be?
• Hold that Cub: Despite rumblings that the Cubs are looking for another bat and, potentially, for another rotation arm, teams that have spoken with them report they've got all their shopping on hold until they get a better feel for the health of Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly and Aramis Ramirez. If all three are back by next week, the still-ownerless Cubs are probably shopped out.
• Read the fine print: Scouts say Aaron Harang seems to have righted himself. But even though he's cleared waivers, here's the single biggest reason you shouldn't look for him to get traded this month: If he's dealt, his $12.75 million club option for 2011 turns into a $14 million mutual option, which essentially guarantees him an extra year on his deal.
Harang already has $12.5 million coming next year no matter where he pitches. And the Reds haven't shown much interest in digesting money to move either him or Arroyo.
• Read the fine print, Part II: When Jamie Moyer said this week he was "disheartened" by the Phillies' decision to bounce him from the rotation, he clearly wasn't talking about the state of his checking account. But this was, nevertheless, a decision that figures to cost Moyer a little spending money. He was on pace to make 32 starts and pitch 181 innings this year had he stayed in the rotation. And if he'd done that, the escalator clauses in his contract would have boosted his base pay next season from $6.5 million to $10.5 million.
He also would have stood to earn an extra $1 million in innings pitched incentives for this season. So this was a move that didn't just hurt Moyer's pride. It also hit him directly in the wallet.
• Life on the Lidge: The Phillies' biggest worry down the stretch isn't how to fit six starters into a five-man rotation. It's the continuing misadventures of closer Brad Lidge, whose strike-throwing percentage (just 60 percent) is at a career low. "There were times last year," said one scout, "that his stuff was so good, he could have told the hitters what was coming and they still couldn't have done anything with it."
But not anymore. Opposing batters have a .949 OPS against him -- nearly 400 points higher than last year. And it's all about total lack of command. "His delivery has really deteriorated, in just about every aspect," said another scout. "He was always a little bit of a drop-and-drive guy, but he kept his front side closed, and he got it done. Now his front side is gone. He's falling way off toward first base. And he has no fastball command at all, because his release point is actually behind him now." The Phillies need to rebuild both Lidge's delivery and his confidence, and they're running out of time.
• A near Mis-Happ: When they made the Cliff Lee trade, the Phillies were leaning heavily toward moving J.A. Happ into their bullpen instead of Moyer. But one scout who has seen a lot of Happ says "that would have been a big mistake."
"I know there are people who think his record is some kind of fluke," the scout said. "I don't think it is. I see good hitters telling me he's good by how much they swing and miss. I'm talking about guys who can hit a little bit."
• Braving it: We're hearing the Braves made a brief run at Victor Martinez before the deadline but didn't get very far.
• Who's on first: One more Braves tidbit: Adam LaRoche might be more than a two-month rental in Atlanta after all. By trading Casey Kotchman, whom they could have controlled beyond this year, the Braves left themselves without a first baseman -- at least until phenom Freddie Freeman arrives, probably in 2011. So don't be surprised to see them attempt to bring back LaRoche next year on a short-term deal.
• Out in the Street: In case you hadn't noticed, there's no closer in the non-Mariano portion of the earth who's having a better year than Colorado's resuscitated Huston Street. He's ripped off 20 straight saves. He went a month and a half without issuing a walk. And between June 21 and a rough outing Monday, he faced 55 hitters and allowed exactly five hits.
"He's been phenomenal," said one scout. "He made one little adjustment, and that's all it took. It looks like he shortened his stride to the left by six or eight inches. He got his balance back. He started throwing the ball downhill again. And everything clicked."
• As the Crow flies: The Strasburg negotiations seem to get all the attention from the baseball draftniks. But elsewhere in Draft Land, Aaron Crow's soap opera is turning into an all-time draft classic.
The Nationals couldn't get him signed by last year's deadline. Now, two months after the Royals became the second team to pick him in the first round, he's been exempted from this year's signing deadline because he made a few independent league starts in May. So there's literally no end in sight.
But we're hearing rumblings that the Royals are planning to establish their own deadline in a few weeks, just to get this mess resolved, one way or the other. If Crow balks again to head back into the draft a third time, he's getting into Matt Harrington territory.
"And that," quipped one scouting director, "is a place no one wants to be -- not unless you're a big fan of Jiffy Lube."
The Rumblings Scouting Bureau
Once again this week, we get the lowdown from America's finest scouting minds:
• On Cole Hamels: "I think he's still feeling the effects of all those innings last year. How many times has he been able to reach back for his good fastball this year?"
• On James Shields: "His stuff just hasn't been the same. I don't know for sure that he's feeling the residue from last year's workload. But he didn't have as good a fastball from the get-go."
• On Mark Reynolds: "He's swinging from his butt on every pitch, trying to hit every ball out of the park. He's just on one of those rolls where he's running into enough balls to hit a bunch of them out."
Headliner of the Week
This just in from the amusing Philadelphia sports-parody site, phillygameday.com:
PHILS END 126-YEAR DROUGHT, WIN 2009 TRADE DEADLINE
Late-nighter of the Week
Finally, here's Stephen Colbert on the downside of a new robot invented by Japanese engineers that can throw strikes on 90 percent of all its pitches and can hit 1.000 on balls thrown in the strike zone:
"Who wants to read about a baseball player cheating on his wife with a toaster oven?"
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.