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Strasburg, Nats finally agree to contract

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 18, 2009

After a summer's worth of waiting, a week of activity and a final few days of frantic negotiations, the Washington Nationals have their ace.

The team agreed to terms with No. 1 pick Stephen Strasburg on a contract a little more than a minute before the Monday night deadline, adding the centerpiece to their much-touted plan to build the organization through scouting and development.

The deal, believed to be for $15.1 million over four years, is considerably more than the record $10.5 million the Chicago Cubs gave pitcher Mark Prior in 2001. It gives the Nationals a pitcher whom many scouts have called the best prospect in a generation and delivers a shot of adrenaline into a fanbase badly in need of one.

"We are proud to have him in the organization, and we're very happy to add him to a growing list of young, upsided right-handed starters," acting general manager Mike Rizzo said. "It's a big day for the Washington Nationals. It's a big day for the fans of Washington, D.C. And it's a big day for the city of Washington."

Negotiations picked up after managing principal owner Ted Lerner, team president Stan Kasten and acting general manager Mike Rizzo led a group of Nationals executives to meet with Strasburg in Southern California last week. Rizzo said the Nationals came away thrilled with Strasburg's competitiveness and desire to start pitching.

And while negotiations with Strasburg's advisor, Scott Boras, consumed most of the day Monday, the Nationals said they never got contentious. Rizzo took the lead on negotiations with Lerner, Kasten and the rest of the Nationals' executive board in the room.

"There's some highs and some lows and some arguing and some real deep planning," Rizzo said. "It's a difficult process at times, but when you can come out of it inking a Stephen Strasburg, it's well worth the effort."

Rizzo said Strasburg will fly to the District in the next several days to visit Nationals Park and get to know his future teammates.

Asked whether Strasburg could be in the majors in September, Rizzo said, "We're not going to go into that right now. It's been a whirlwind day. We've got to figure out where he's at, how in shape his arm is and how much we have to ramp him up before he can start pitching competitively."

It caps a grueling set of negotiations with Boras, who sought to cast Strasburg in a history-making light since before the Nationals took the former San Diego State right-hander June 9.

Boras had compared Strasburg to top international players like Japanese pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka, tacitly floating the idea that the 21-year-old was worth a contract similar to the six-year, $52 million deal he negotiated with the Boston Red Sox for Matsuzaka in 2006.

But the Nationals had said they did not want to offer a deal they felt would blow up the structure of the draft and the slotting system Major League Baseball uses as a suggestion for the draft picks' bonuses.

The wild card in the whole process turned out to be Strasburg himself. The 6-foot-4 right-hander was itching to get his professional career started, and that desire helped propel both sides toward a contract.

"We saw that in his eyes. We saw that in what he was saying," Rizzo said. "This kid was an independent thinker. I think that's what I came away thinking, that this guy's going to make his own decision, and he really wants to go out and play."

The meeting which Rizzo said was primarily to get Lerner in a room with Strasburg was a catalyst to getting the talks moving after a summer of waiting that led some in baseball to believe the Nationals and Boras would wind up a gulf apart.

Somehow, both sides found a way to get a deal they could live with.

"Let's give Scott credit," Kasten said. "I've seen Scott when he's difficult. Scott was pretty darn good through this process."

The signing is a boon to a franchise starving for an ace on its staff and a symbol for the future. The right-hander, called the best prospect in a generation by many scouts, is easily the highest-profile addition the Nationals have made in their three-year plan to stockpile their system with young pitchers.

Strasburg has commanded attention by flashing a fastball that has been clocked in the triple digits, a devastating curveball and an ability to throw both to either side of the plate. Strasburg pitched for the U.S. Olympic team last summer in Beijing and won the Golden Spikes Award as the nation's top amateur baseball player this year.

He went 13-1 with a 1.32 ERA in 109 innings for San Diego State this season, striking out 195 batters and leading the Aztecs to their first NCAA tournament berth since 1991.

And now, he has a new team he'll be expected to carry to uncharted territory.

"He's as eager as he can be to get here," Kasten said. "As he put it, he's eager to strap it back on and get back to playing baseball."