Nats Avoid Embarrassment, Ink Strasburg Before Deadline

The Nationals signed their 2009 #1 draft pick (and #1 overall pick in the draft), pitcher Stephen Strasburg of San Diego State, to a 4-year deal last night just minutes before the midnight signing deadline (at 11:58 p.m. to be precise). Negotiations between Nationals brass and Strasburg's agent Scott Boras were expected to come down to the wire, with Boras pushing for a deal in the neighborhood of $50 million and the Nationals holding firm on a deal comparable to those given to other high first-round picks over the past several years and closer to the $10 - $15 million range.

In the end, the Nationals and Strasburg agreed on a 4-year deal worth just over $15 million. Strasburg's success had been well-documented and hyped by the media in advance of the draft, garnering national exposure after he helped lead the San Diego State Aztecs (coached by Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn) to a College World Series appearance. He went 13-1 last season, leading Division I pitchers in ERA (1.35) and strikeouts (195 in 109 innings), and won the Golden Spikes award for the top U.S. amateur baseball player.

More importantly, the Strasburg signing should help breathe life into the Nationals franchise, spurring momentum and excitement for the 2010 season. Its hard to tell whether Strasburg will make an appearance this season for the Nats (I would guess they'd hold off on bringing him up until the start of next season), but signing the most heralded pitching prospect in decades (and by the account of some, possibly ever) should help those Nats fans out there have confidence that the Lerners are intent on building a foundation for the future. If I'm the Nats, I start the Strasburg marketing right now. I bring him in for a huge media session, have Strasburg t-shirt nights, start jersey sales, etc. For a time that has been often maligned for its lack of PR-prowess, its time to get things right and start achieving a return on their investment in this guy.

While many of the talking heads placed skeptic odds on the Nationals ability to sign Strasburg due to the involvement of Boras in negotiations, its nice to see that the two sides came to their senses and realized that they really needed each other. For the Nats, this was a chance to sign a fresh type of young arm that will put fans in the seats (mark my words, I will be there when he makes his debut at Nats park, no matter what I have going on). For Strasburg, his options were limited. If he failed to agree to terms with Washington, he would be forced to play either in an Independent league, return to San Diego State, or go to Japan, only to return to the draft pool next year. And while the Nats have been playing around .500 ball since the All-Star break, they still have the worst record in baseball. Hopefully that turns around prior to the end of the season, but its too early to tell. In reality, Strasburg could find himself in the same situation a year from now, trying to settle an 11th hour deal with the same team he spurned a year before.

What also was reinforced by this signing was that Scott Boras is trying to ruin baseball. As I mentioned above, he was seeking a deal worth around $50 million for Strasburg, using guys like Dice-K and Jose Contreras as his comparables (the Nats, in contrast, were using Mark Prior and certain others as their benchmarks). Two observations are worth noting from this. First, Boras, in coming to the table, was effectively trying to establish a new metric by which draft picks could be evaluated. Secondly, he was making a statement about baseball economics that we often read about. The nature of the draft is one that gives the worst teams in baseball the best picks. These teams are typically the small to mid-market teams (Washington, Kansas City, Seattle, Pittsburgh), and are not willing to shell out money that could be reserved for an otherwise established free agent pickup to take a gamble on a high school or college kid that is billed as having the "best fastball", "5-tool skills" or other such buzzwords that may or may not turn out to be true. Additionally, imagine the resentment that would be felt in the Nationals minor league clubhouses had Strasburg signed for $50 million. I'm not contending that $15 million is chump change, or that Strasburg will be in the minors for very long, but think about a 25-man roster at the AA-level. You have a guy making $10 million dollars alongside other guys in a rotation that are getting paid $50,000 each? It just doesn't make sense. Give him a good bonus to bring him on board the organization, and then allow him to earn his stripes. I'd venture to say that $15 million is much more money than Steven Strasburg has ever seen in his life, and if he is as good as everyone claims he is, he'll have a chance to have an even more lucrative career in the long-run. embarrassment

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