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Nats must sign Strasburg by midnight

- The Washington Times - Monday, August 17, 2009

CINCINNATI | The most high-profile addition the Washington Nationals have made in their short history - and the most pivotal set of negotiations to secure his services - are down to this: a final, frantic few hours before the deadline to sign Stephen Strasburg.

Fruit flies have longer life spans than the posturing flowing from both sides. And anything you hear about so-called "final" offers? Forget it.

It all comes down to the Nationals' aim to acquire Strasburg without blowing up the structure of the draft against Strasburg advisor Scott Boras' goal of getting a precedent-setting deal for his client.

Then there is the future of the former San Diego State right-hander, how much he wants to play baseball and what he thinks is fair. And when Monday turns to Tuesday, everyone will know.

The Nationals have until 12:01 a.m. Tuesday to sign Strasburg, the No. 1 pick in June's draft. The 21-year-old has been talked about as the best prospect in a generation, the kind of pitcher that can step in and be the ace of a staff. But these negotiations have always been about more than that.

Boras has compared Strasburg to top international pitchers like Daisuke Matsuzaka and Jose Contreras, who got far more money than the record $10.5 million the Chicago Cubs gave draft pick Mark Prior in 2001. The Nationals said they offered Strasburg a record-breaking deal, but there's quite a bit of room between $10.5 million and the $52 million the Red Sox gave Matsuzaka in 2006.

Boras sees the draft system, which uses predetermined slots as a suggestion for what teams should pay players, as unfair to American prospects who earn less money than international players who don't have to go through it.

The Nationals, perhaps mindful they could be picking No. 1 again next year and dealing with another Boras mega-prospect in catcher Bryce Harper, have been loath to offer Strasburg a deal that would skew the system.

What's more, there have been whispers around baseball that the Lerner family is so indebted to commissioner Bud Selig for giving them the team in 2006 that they don't want to cross him by helping to tear up the slotting system Selig has so staunchly defended.

Somewhere in all of that, there's a baseball decision to be made. The Nationals know all too well how fragile young pitchers are, having learned top prospect Jordan Zimmermann will need Tommy John surgery and will be out most of next season.

But Strasburg is projected to be a notch or two above Zimmermann, and arms like his don't come around often.

Orioles general manager Andy MacPhail faced a similar dilemma in 2001 when he was the general manager of the Cubs, who took Prior No. 2 in part because the Minnesota Twins were scared off by his bonus demands, instead opting for hometown product Joe Mauer.

MacPhail said in the end, contracts have to be based on something much more scientific than rhetoric and potential.

"There's a risk-reward," he said. "That same risk-reward relates to current major league contracts. You start looking at what some serviceable major league free agents are getting, and you measure that against the incremental difference in the player, if you're really sold on that player."

In the end, he said, the deal wasn't nearly as costly as the sticker shock looked. The actual signing bonus, as MacPhail recalled it, was only about $6 million. The rest of the money in the five-year deal was in the form of player options that, MacPhail figured, the Cubs would never pay.

"What gets under-reported in the Prior deal is, everyone writes $10.5 [million], and that's true. If he got hit by a bus, it was $10.5 [million]," he said. "What we did in that deal was, the last two or three years were player options at $2 million a pop. Our bet was, if this kid was what he thought he was going to be, he was going to get to the big leagues. He would be able to arbitrate, and those last player options that were part of his signing bonus package were not going to be something he was going to do, and that's what happened."

In his last two seasons with the Cubs, Prior made $3.55 million and $3.65 million, but he only got that far because he was good enough at the start of his career to make his money in arbitration. If that happened, MacPhail figured, it would mean Prior was good enough to earn his money.

MacPhail also signed Boras client Matt Wieters in 2007, giving him a $6 million signing bonus.

Asked earlier this summer if he has shared any of that experience with close friend and Nationals president Stan Kasten, MacPhail quickly replied, "Stan's a smart guy. I don't need to tell him anything on that front."

Kasten, the Lerner family and acting general manager Mike Rizzo have less than 24 hours left in their dance - or is it a sparring match? - with Boras.

By early Tuesday morning, we'll have a resolution.