Commentary

Hefty price tag on Strasburg's talent

Nationals are expected to draft the pitching phenom … but then the hard part begins

Updated: June 10, 2009, 2:56 PM ET
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

Major League Baseball officials rarely agree with Scott Boras on the appropriate price for his elite draft picks, but they can't criticize him for a lack of historical perspective.

Boras was new to the business in 1982 when he hooked up with a talented college pitcher named Tim Belcher. That was the same year a promising shortstop from the Dominican Republic made his debut with the Philadelphia Phillies. The kid would eventually become known as "the ageless Julio Franco."

So when Boras calls San Diego State pitcher Stephen Strasburg "the best amateur pitcher I've seen in my 27 years in the draft," it's noteworthy despite the obvious self-interest factor. You don't need a Baseball America subscription to know that Stephen Strasburg is being advised by, well, Scott Boras.

"Brien Taylor was the best high school pitcher I've ever seen, and Darren Dreifort was the best college pitcher as far as stuff that I've ever seen," Boras said. "But Stephen Strasburg has better stuff, a better breaking ball and better command. This guy throws 101 [mph] at times, and 98 was the optimum for those [other] guys."

Strasburg's talent is so striking, says Boras, that franchises with no prayer of drafting him are watching him pitch just for the experience.

"Most of the scouting directors are younger than me, but the ones who have been around are saying the same thing: 'Oh my God, this is something special,'" said the 56-year-old Boras. "They're sending scouts to watch him pitch when they know they can't draft him, just so they can see him and use him as the ceiling."

In some years, major league personnel people might listen to that kind of talk and dismiss Boras as a master of hyperbole. In Strasburg's case, he's practically a model of restraint.

Forget about Ben McDonald, Paul Wilson, Mark Prior, Kris Benson and other college pitchers who arrived with mounds of hype. There's no precedent for the frenzy surrounding Strasburg, whose supersonic fastball and hammer curve helped him go 13-1 with a 1.22 ERA and 195 strikeouts in 119 innings for the Aztecs.

Strasburg's college coach, Tony Gwynn, recently said he's good enough to be the Washington Nationals' best starter or to slide in immediately behind Jake Peavy and Chris Young as the No. 3 in San Diego. And dozens of talent evaluators with no stake in Strasburg's future confirm that he is, indeed, the real deal.

"When there's this much hype, you can always find some team that's a little lighter on a player," an American League scout said. "Even when people talked about Matt Wieters and how otherworldly he was, we got reports like, 'He's very good, but it's not like he's a Hall of Famer or a once-in-a-lifetime guy.' But on [Strasburg], I have not heard that at all."

Barring the biggest change of heart since the Padres took Matt Bush first overall in 2004, the Nationals will select Strasburg No. 1 at the first-year-player draft Tuesday night. If you think the previews of coming attractions are sensational, just wait for the dramatic tension until he signs.

Although it's a given in baseball circles that Strasburg will surpass Prior's record-setting $10.5 million guaranteed payout with the Chicago Cubs in 2001, the magnitude of the Strasburg shock waves is yet to be seen.

During a recent owners' meeting, commissioner Bud Selig recommended that clubs reduce the bonus "slots" in the 2009 draft by 10 percent. Factor in the clubs' professed concerns about the economy, weigh that against Boras' fondness for setting records, and something has to give. Speculation is rampant that MLB teams will push hard for a more rigid slotting system or bonus cap during the next labor negotiations in 2011.

'Aggressive, but appropriate'

Leverage means everything at the upper reaches of the draft, and the Nationals have an air of desperation about them. They rank 27th in the majors in attendance, and they have a record of 74-141 (for a winning percentage of .344) since the start of the 2008 season.

The Nats were recently rocked by a Latin American bonus scandal that led to the resignation of general manager Jim Bowden and the firing of special assistant Jose Rijo. In addition, they failed to sign last year's first-round pick, Missouri pitcher Aaron Crow, after reaching a stalemate in negotiations.

But if there's a perception the Nationals will go beyond their comfort zone to sign Strasburg, the team is doing its best to debunk it. After lamenting the media-driven "mythology and hyperbole" surrounding a certain San Diego State right-hander, Nationals president Stan Kasten makes it clear his team has no intention of offering some mind-blowing, draft-destroying deal rooted in panic.

"There's no one player or situation that changes the whole industry," Kasten said. "One hundred years of history have proven that, and that's not going to happen here, I can assure you. We do expect to draft the player we think is the best. We expect to sign him. We're going to be aggressive, but we'll be appropriate."

The predraft jockeying is a testimony to the game-playing that foreshadows the selection process. For example, it's widely assumed that Boras will leak some grandiose number, then sit back and chuckle as media outlets spew out numbers for public consumption.

In reality, Boras' rhetoric is subtler than that, and his arguments tend to shift from draft to draft. That's one thing that drives teams batty about him.

In an interview with ESPN.com, Boras spoke at length about how prominent international signings have served as "driving posts" for draft bonuses through the years. He made liberal references to Jose Contreras and Daisuke Matsuzaka in particular.

"Historically, when I did J.D. Drew's contract, [the amount that] Cuban players got paid was relevant," Boras said. "We should not treat the value of American talent in the same industry differently than we do for non-major league talent that comes from outside.

[+] EnlargeScott Boras
Kirby Lee/US PresswireScott Boras will take over as negotiator and mouthpiece for Stephen Strasburg after the pitcher's name is called during Tuesday's draft.

"What if Stephen Strasburg was raised in Tibet? What would we do? Because he's American, we're going to penalize him? That's the story."

Matsuzaka, a Boras client, signed a six-year, $52 million deal with Boston after the Red Sox paid a $51.11 million posting fee for his exclusive negotiating rights. Even though Boras has never mentioned the words "$50 million" or any dollar figure for Strasburg, the implication is clear: If that price tag was good enough for Dice-K, this kid is in the ballpark.

"The funny part is, Scott never says a price," said Eddie Bane, the Los Angeles Angels' scouting director. "We always say it for him. I don't know why we do that, but we do."

Bowden, Washington's former GM, helped moved the ball up the field when he told a Los Angeles radio station that the Nationals plan to draft Strasburg and will sign him "at 11:57 p.m. on Aug. 15" -- or three minutes before they'll lose the rights to him. Bowden predicted the Nationals will pay Strasburg $15 million, or "about 35 million under what Scott wants."

To many in the industry, Boras' Matsuzaka comparison is simply a case of hauling out the latest, handiest reference point that's advantageous to his negotiating position.

"Scott knows he's reaching on that one," Bane said. "I don't see the correlation. How can you compare a guy in the Japanese big leagues -- after they've won two straight World Baseball Classics -- to an amateur player? Why don't you just talk about Alex Rodriguez's contract?"

Oil-and-water matchup

The tone of the Nationals' negotiations with Boras could hinge on who's calling the shots. Is it the Lerner family, which owns the club, or Kasten? Or is it Mike Rizzo, the team's acting general manager and one of the game's most respected evaluators of draft talent?

If Kasten and Boras square off in negotiations, the Nationals might want to consider selling box seats, because the entertainment value will be off the charts. Kasten, a renowned management hard-liner, has long argued that everything bad about sports, from greedy athletes to rising ticket prices, is linked to the rise of agents. Boras, naturally, is at the top of the hit parade.

"I used to think [agents] were a necessary evil in sports," Kasten once said. "Now I just think of them as evil."

Kasten has shown he's willing to walk away from deals when the cost is too high. In 1990, Kasten's Atlanta Braves were interested in drafting Texas high school pitcher Todd Van Poppel with the top overall pick. But after balking at Van Poppel's price, the Braves took a Jacksonville high school shortstop named Larry Wayne "Chipper" Jones. Things couldn't have worked out any better for Atlanta.

Stephen Strasburg
Darryl Dennis/Icon SMIStephen Strasburg's supreme talent is unquestioned, but his future as a major league carries no guarantees.

A change in the labor agreement in 2006 lends a new dynamic to the Strasburg talks. If the Nationals pick Strasburg and fail to sign him, they'll receive the second overall choice next June. Similarly, Washington received the 10th pick this year after failing to sign Crow in the ninth spot in 2008.

But all indications are the Nationals will pick Strasburg and take their chances rather than pass on him and choose another player for "signability" reasons.

"We understand there's a chance we won't sign this player," Kasten said, without referring to Strasburg by name. "But we've decided pick No. 2 next year is preferable for us over taking the second player this year."

Ross Detwiler and Jordan Zimmermann, Washington's first two draft picks in 2007, are already in the big leagues, and the Nationals could provide a quick, easy route to the majors for Strasburg. But Strasburg's decision to pick Boras as his adviser is a sure sign that he's prepared for a lengthy and arduous negotiation in the quest for the highest dollar.

Boras pioneered the concept of taking players to independent ball, and he's dropped hints that he might consider taking Strasburg to Japan if the Nationals aren't willing to pay.

When Boras isn't comparing Strasburg to Sidd Finch, the fictional Sports Illustrated pitcher who threw 168 mph, he's invoking the names of Jim Abbott, McDonald and Dreifort -- former clients that Boras claimed were capable of going from college to the majors with little or no minor league seasoning.

"We don't say this about many players, but it's all proven to be true," Boras said.

Nevertheless, those comparisons confirm that there's no such thing as a sure thing in the draft. McDonald posted a 78-70 record with a 3.91 ERA before retiring because of injuries at age 29. Dreifort was 48-60 when he packed it in for health reasons at 32. And Abbott, while a profile in courage, logged a career 87-108 record. None of those three pitchers made an All-Star team in a combined 28 major league seasons.

As good as Stephen Strasburg might be, baseball people find it hard to grasp the idea of a team giving him $50 million fresh off the San Diego State campus. For the sake of comparison, Peavy received a three-year, guaranteed $52 million deal from the Padres after winning the Cy Young Award in 2007.

"You're paying for potential with respect to draft picks," said Sandy Alderson, a former Athletics, Padres and MLB executive. "But at some point you start looking at apples to apples. At $50 million, Peavy and Strasburg aren't apples and apples -- regardless of what kind of potential [Strasburg] has got."

If you notice there hasn't been much talk in this story about what Strasburg and his family want, that's how the drill works. Strasburg will share his excitement in a draft-day press conference at Boras' Newport Beach, Calif., headquarters and then cease giving interviews, just as Pedro Alvarez clammed up during his negotiations with Pittsburgh last summer. Beginning June 10, it's strictly Boras' show.

Some things are sure to happen in July or August. Look for Strasburg to be characterized as greedy or a Boras "puppet" by Nationals fans and veteran players in major league clubhouses. Expect the Nationals to claim, at some point, that Boras has failed to convey an offer they made to Strasburg. And rest assured that Boras will be outraged eventually over some misstep by the team in negotiations.

A few columnists will also insist Boras has overshot this time and that his influence is absolutely, positively starting to wane. In the meantime, Boras will spend this summer negotiating on behalf of Strasburg, Dustin Ackley, Donavan Tate, Jacob Turner, Grant Green and several other top-50 draft talents. If anything, Boras is gaining clout in the draft, not losing it.

Yes, Stephen Strasburg is an exceptional pitcher and a "special" talent, but history says his road to a contract will be contentious and full of twists. Enjoy the smiles and the happy talk on draft night, because it'll be at least two months before you see anything else like it.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer