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Strasburg Watch: A Monumental Battle Takes Shape

If Peter Gammons is correct -- that agent Scott Boras is floating the notion of a six-year, $50 million contract for probable No. 1 overall draft pick Stephen Strasburg -- it could touch off a monumental negotiating battle that pits Boras and his client against not only the Washington Nationals, but also Major League Baseball itself.

Reading between the lines of the Gammons note, Boras appears to be preparing to use Strasburg, the exceptionally talented San Diego State right-hander, as a way of exploding the "slotting" system with which MLB has tried -- mostly unsuccessfully -- to reign in signing bonuses for draftees. It also appears Boras will be attempting to equate Strasburg not with previous No. 1 overall picks (Mark Prior holds the record for the biggest contract ever awarded a top pick, $10.5 million in 2001), but Daisuke Matsuzaka, the Japanese import (and Boras client) who signed a six-year, $52 million contract with the Boston Red Sox before the 2007 season. Such a stance would almost certainly invite MLB's involvement in the process and force a complete overhaul of the slotting system.

Boras's argument would be that, in terms of ability and immediate impact, Strasburg has more in common with Matsuzaka than, say, David Price, who was the last pitcher to be picked No. 1 overall (he got $8.8 million from Tampa Bay in 2007). Would the argument be valid? Right now, Strasburg is making a complete mockery of the college game, striking out an average of 19.4 batters per nine innings this season. His radar gun readings are consistently over 100 mph. ESPN's Buster Olney has quoted an unnamed scout as saying Strasburg, right now, would be as good a pitcher as A.J. Burnett -- who (dare we mention?) signed an $82.5 million contract with the Yankees this winter.

What makes this potential negotiation so fascinating is the fact Boras would have most, if not all, of the leverage -- thanks in part to the Nationals' failure to sign their top draft pick from last June, pitcher Aaron Crow. There would be a fan revolt in Washington if the Nationals fail again -- particularly when the prize is a once-in-a-lifetime talent such as Strasburg. On the other hand, the Nationals would little negotiating leverage beyond the threat of walking away from the table and forcing Strasburg to play a year in the independent leagues (or, as Gammons mentions, in Japan).

Near the end of the Matsuzaka negotiations, the Red Sox took exactly that take-it-or-leave-it approach. Having flown to California to negotiate with Boras and Matsuzaka face to face, only to see those talks break down at the end, the Red Sox's braintrust sent Boras an ultimatum, as related in this masterful Gordon Edes piece: Their plane back to Boston was taking off at 9 a.m., and if Matsuzaka wasn't on it, the deal was off. Matsuzaka made the flight.

So what's a fair price for a pitcher like Strasburg? Ultimately, it will almost certainly be way north of Prior ($10.5 million) and way south of Matsuzaka ($52 million). But there is a lot of territory in between, undoubtedly enough to send a shiver through the spines of the Nationals' owners.

By Dave Sheinin  |  March 22, 2009; 12:30 PM ET
 
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Next: Milledge Gets The Top Spot

Comments

It shouldn't send shivers down their spines. Who would you rather pay $10 million a year to - Strasburg or some #2 or #3 starter with a fair amount of mileage of him? Strasburg is the real deal. Pay him. There is risk regardless when you target a pitcher.

#4

Posted by: db423 | March 22, 2009 12:49 PM | Report abuse

How unlucky can one team be, to have Borass as the agent of the #1 player in the draft...again. I was really thinking that something in line with doubling the deal Prior got would certainly be a worthy investment, but to say that 300 wins lifetime is worth a starting out signing of 50+ million for six years is absolutely absurd. Where will fans get the money to buy tickets to games if these salaries, to be paid for by the fans eventually, keep rising? IF this salary signing proves to be true, then I for one would forgive the Nats should they decide to go in another direction. I don't care if he eventually passes Walter Johnson in wins. One player does not make a team...ask the Yanks how many rings Rodriguez has brought them. Someone has to draw the line with these outrageous demands. I hate to lose the player, but at this cost, take a hike.

Posted by: cokedispatch | March 22, 2009 12:54 PM | Report abuse

Boras' posturing for his clients is what he's best at. This is simply his "pre-emptive" strike against the market by setting the bar extrodinarly high. While it's nice to know the level of delusion that the Nationals' are going up against, the draft is still three months away. Lets' see where the overall economy is then, then look at what is Market Value.

Posted by: BinM | March 22, 2009 12:55 PM | Report abuse

Mark Prior was the real deal, too, in 2001 -- the hands down best college pitching prospect anyone had seen. He's pitched a total of 5 seasons, topping 120 innings only twice. He never earned $4 million in a single season.

Sure, I don't mind making Strasburg that highest-paid draft pick ever, but over $8 million a year for six years to someone who's never pitched against major league batters is ludicrous, and entirely too risky. If the Nats offer 5 years, $25 million, I would have no problem with the Nats walking away should Boras not be satisfied.

And the fact that the Red Sox's terrible Matsuzaka contract is now a benchmark is even more ludicrous.

Posted by: NattyFan | March 22, 2009 1:09 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for the post, Dave!

It is hard to fathom those prices... but at the same time, Strasburg isn't just any player.

But Dave, do you really think the scenario would be any different if they had signed Crow? I don't... and in fact, one might make the argument that it strengthens the Nats position in that it shows that they can walk away from a number one pick... but as you correctly point out... there would be rioting in the streets among the fans.

I think the real test for the Nats will be how they do on the field between now and the draft. If they look credible in terms of being able to compete in the NL East (meaning, middle of the pack) then signing Strasburg for record money makes sense. In fact, the Nats would almost certainly get it all back in gate from when he pitched...

On the other hand... if they're pathetically bad, it might be wasted money...

Posted by: wigi | March 22, 2009 1:10 PM | Report abuse

wevegotheart.com/2009/03/21/a-dream-to-job-to-some-a-paycheck-to-others/

Posted by: thom202 | March 22, 2009 1:17 PM | Report abuse

Ladson is reporting on his blog that Acta has named Milledge the leadoff guy to start the year.

I like the move. I think LMillz can be a Ricky-lite as long as he can cut down on his caught-stealing.

Posted by: sec307 | March 22, 2009 1:21 PM | Report abuse

@307:

Ladson could be right on this one, with a couple of caveats; 1) That there are no trades between now & the end of ST, and 2) that everyone stays healthy.

Posted by: BinM | March 22, 2009 1:32 PM | Report abuse

Chico's got a post up about Milledge being the leadoff hitter

Posted by: BGinVA | March 22, 2009 1:36 PM | Report abuse

Sec307,
I'm not a Milledge hater. I think he got a raw deal in NY.
I don't believe, however, that he has earned a starting job, much less the lead-off slot.
I'm not sure there is a worse fielding cf in MLB. With the possible exception of Felipe Lopez (thank goodness he's gone) I don't believe there is a worse base runner.
On the oter hand, he certainly does have the tools. I'm not going to get into the argument about how hard he works to improve because I do not know. His perofrmance on the field does not fill me with optimism.
Having said all that I'm not sure who we have that is better suited.
Since I would like to see Dukes in cf I think I would also like ot see him at lead off. If his power numbers develope, as we all hope, we can move him down later.

Let's play two!

Posted by: SlowPitch63 | March 22, 2009 1:46 PM | Report abuse

Thank you Dave. This has been on MLBTR for days but the commentary and perspective is appreciated.

--
thom202

Chico Harlan - "I don't like sports, I'm embarrassed that I cover them. I can't wait to stop. It's a means to an end and a paycheck."

Posted by: thom202 | March 22, 2009 1:57 PM | Report abuse

Re Chico-gate, I for one am not the least bit surprised to hear his statements. We learned all we needed to about young Harlan the day he was hired, when it was revealed that his BFF is Eli "Which way to the Phillies clubhouse?" Saslow. That turbine-like sound you hear is the great Shirley Povich spinning in his grave because this stain Chico Harlan is collecting a paycheck every day (except when he's on one of his many vacations, of course) from the newspaper he once edited, in the pressbox that's named after him.

And don't all you commenters here (you know who you are) who've been sucking up to Chico by posting things like "Pulitzer material" every time he deigns to write a story feel foolish now. Are you going to try telling us now that that was all just snark?

Posted by: nunof1 | March 22, 2009 2:16 PM | Report abuse

wevegotheart.com/2009/03/21/a-dream-to-job-to-some-a-paycheck-to-others/

Closest you can get without a trip to the newsstand to grab a copy of this month's Washingtonian. I'd call it a must read.

Posted by: thom202 | March 22, 2009 2:40 PM | Report abuse

These Strasburg negotiations will be interesting. The Nats signed their #1 in 2007--Ross Detwiler, a slot guy, at something like $2.2 million. Then in 2008, the Nats did not want to pay an asking price of over $4 million, and many Nats fans were happy that the Nats resisted the "greed" of the College Pitcher of the Year, Aaron Crow, who went undefeated in a major conference. So they let Crow walk, even though the difference between the two sides was about what the Nats signed their latest backup catcher for.

So now the price tag escalates, dramatically--way beyond Crow numbers. Maybe Rizzo and Kasten can gang up on the Lerners to get the deal done!

Posted by: EdDC | March 22, 2009 4:15 PM | Report abuse

>Mark Prior was the real deal, too, in 2001 -- the hands down best college pitching prospect anyone had seen. He's pitched a total of 5 seasons, topping 120 innings only twice. He never earned $4 million in a single season.

Every team knew beforehand that Prior had mechanical problems when he was in college. The Cubs just chose to ignore it. They thought they could fix it. But Prior never threw 100 mph+ consistently. Nobody's been around that speed since Nolan Ryan was coming up. And before that it was Walter Johnson. You could look it up. Maybe Bob Feller. That's it. And his overall stuff is better than Ryan's.

Bottom line for me contract-wise is that if he's pretty much ready now, then they get full benefit from him for the entire length of the contract. If he's going to be a front-line starter for the next four years, then it's obvious he should get paid like one. Strasburg has absolutely nothing to do with affecting the slotting because he's unique. Maybe four or five times in the last 130 years has Strasburg come along. I mean, get real, when's the last time someone blew the gun up like that? Clemens never even got close to those numbers. I don't see anything wrong with 8-10 million/year. You certainly couldn't find his replacement for that much. Plus you'd have to wait 30 years too>

Posted by: Brue | March 22, 2009 4:42 PM | Report abuse

Carrying backward:

I just read Harry Jaffe's April 2009 Washingtonian Post Watch piece (plus or minus 500 words, I'd say). I wanted to read the entire piece, with the quote in context, before commenting.

In addition to NatsNut's comments, I'd note that Jaffe opines (1) that Harlan's distance from the team might make for tough reporting on the team and (2) that such reporting is sometimes missing from Post coverage of local teams. Jaffe goes on to comment on Boswell in the context of Nats coverage.

To counterbalance the "control freak" comment about Kasten that was quoted in a prior post, Chico also stated that if he owned a sports team, he would want Stan involved.

It's worth picking up a copy of the magazine (or taking a gander at the local library's copy, if they have one) to get the rest of the story, IMO. (Wonder whether the folks at Washingtonian are happy that NJ could be driving up their sales today?)

I would think that the phrasing of the paycheck comment could strike a negative note for those who are out of work and would love to be getting a paycheck at all. Overall, though, I did not find the piece to be alarming. As a hardcore fan, I enjoy reading pieces where the author's love of the game comes through. But I've also come to appreciate aspects of Chico's approach, particularly as displayed in some of his most recent feature stories.

Posted by: natsfan1a1 | March 22, 2009 6:03 PM | Report abuse

Obviously Strasburg deserves to break Prior's record. But the key is it must a signing bonus only. Not one red cent of a guaranteed major league contract. You can subvert the CBA through a player contract.

$15m for a signing bonus, fine. But he can play for the min next year like everyone else since the CBA started. If he delivers the way he is supposed to then he can break the bank on a LT deal after that year.

My take anyway.

Posted by: Avar | March 22, 2009 6:15 PM | Report abuse

>I've also come to appreciate aspects of Chico's approach, particularly as displayed in some of his most recent feature stories.

He can certainly write. Maybe he's just not comfortable in a big league locker room. It happens.

Posted by: Brue | March 22, 2009 7:18 PM | Report abuse

They all seem overrated to me!

RT
www.online-privacy.pro.tc

Posted by: clermontpc | March 23, 2009 10:44 AM | Report abuse

Not worth it.....get some quality proven vts.

Posted by: nospinzone1 | March 23, 2009 11:38 PM | Report abuse

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