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BILL SHAIKIN / ON BASEBALL

Stephen Strasburg's deal looms as extraordinary, all right

Count on agent Scott Boras to make the Washington Nationals, who drafted Strasburg, squirm.

June 11, 2009|BILL SHAIKIN

The adjective du jour is "extraordinary."

Scott Boras uses a thesaurus better than anyone in baseball. He has advertised players as special, as premium, as iconic.

For Stephen Strasburg, and for Boras' mission to get him paid as if he were a free agent rather than a draft pick, baseball's most powerful agent has chosen "extraordinary."

As in: "The equation of how an extraordinary talent fits in really has little or nothing to do with the other aspects of the draft."

The confetti had barely been cleaned up in Washington. It had not even been 24 hours since the Nationals had selected Strasburg with the No. 1 pick in the draft, a giddy moment for a sad franchise, and Boras took to a conference call Wednesday to pitch on behalf of the best pitcher in college baseball.

"By most scouts' account, he's the best draft pick in history, for a pitcher," Boras said.

Extraordinary, yes. Tony Gwynn, his coach at San Diego State, has said Strasburg could be the Nationals' ace right now.

But this time belongs to Boras, not to Strasburg. The Nationals face an Aug. 17 deadline to sign Strasburg, and rest assured Boras will make the Nationals sweat for all 67 days until then.

What does Boras want?

First, he wants to persuade the Nationals that the risk in signing Strasburg is "almost nil," even though the track record for pitchers selected with the No. 1 pick is spotty at best.

There are no Hall of Famers among the 12 pitchers selected at No. 1, only Tim Belcher and Andy Benes and Ben McDonald and Mike Moore and a bunch of regrets.

That's beside the point, Boras argues. It's all about the money. The best players, he says, are the ones who got the most money to sign -- $5 million or more.

"The risk is almost nil of them not making it to the major leagues," he said.

They all have made it, all 18 who signed for at least $5 million from 1998 to 2007. Joe Mauer and Josh Beckett starred. Joe Borchard and Eric Munson bombed. Mark Prior got hurt.

David Price and Justin Upton look terrific so far, Luke Hochevar and Andrew Miller not so much.

For that money, just getting there ought not to be enough. Mauer is the first two-time All-Star among that group of 18. Pat Burrell and Delmon Young might play out their careers without ever making the All-Star game.

Prior signed for a record $10.5 million. Burrell, Price and Mark Teixeira are the only other players to have hit $8 million.

" . . . An extraordinary player receiving a substantial bonus, far above other draft picks, has happened before," Boras said. "It does not happen often."

The Nationals would happily give Strasburg a little more than Prior got, but Boras wants a lot more. That $50-million figure floated on his behalf is not a random number.

The Boston Red Sox signed Daisuke Matsuzaka for $52 million out of Japanese baseball, described by Boras as "where our reserves who can't make a living in the major leagues go to better themselves."

If Japanese baseball were that good, Boras argued, the talent-starved Nationals would be filling their roster from Japan. "The players there are not, by and large, of major league quality," Boras said. "Certainly, the same is true for college baseball. It is not remotely comparable to the major leagues. We do have rare exceptions, in the case of the extraordinary player."

It does not matter to Boras that Matsuzaka was one of Japan's most decorated players, with success in professional and international play that Strasburg cannot match. It does not matter that Jose Contreras had similar success before he defected from Cuba.

It matters only that Matsuzaka and Contreras had no track record in the major leagues. Matsuzaka got $52 million from the Red Sox and Contreras $32 million from the New York Yankees, and Boras wants something similar for another "extraordinary" pitcher with no track record in the majors.

Boras is a master at creating leverage where he appears to have none.

There is an argument to be made that the draft artificially limits the bonuses of American prospects, since players outside the U.S. and Canada are not subject to the draft and can sign with any team as free agents. That is an argument for the next round of collective bargaining, not for the martyrdom of Strasburg.

The Red Sox won an auction for the rights to Matsuzaka. The Yankees won a bidding war for Contreras.

The Nationals need not pretend that Strasburg is a free agent. In the next two months, when negotiations stall, Boras inevitably will say other teams would have paid more. That doesn't matter. The other teams can't play.

Boras could take Strasburg to an independent league and try the draft again next year. That worked for Hochevar, who spurned the Dodgers as No. 40 four years ago, then went to the Royals at No. 1 the next year. Yet Strasburg is No. 1 now, so he can't sit out a year and move up. He'll never see this much money in the draft again. Bad idea.

Boras could take Strasburg to Japan, then try to argue for free agency next year. That could end up in court, in arbitration or both. Another bad idea.

No, the best card Boras can play is the Nationals' credibility card. They're the worst team in the major leagues, again, and they failed to sign their first-round draft pick last year. If they don't sign Strasburg, baseball might as well relegate them to triple A.

Boras is not shy about taking his case to the public, so the Nationals ought to do the same thing. They ought to call a news conference and make the following announcement:

We agree that Strasburg is an extraordinary player. It is for that reason that we are offering him half again as much as any player ever has gotten in the draft -- $15.75 million.

Then sit on the offer.

The chances of Strasburg saying no?

Almost nil.

--

bill.shaikin@latimes.com

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