- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The signs of a standoff were evident long before last week, when Major League Baseball reportedly decided to cut its slot recommendations for draft pick signing bonuses by 10 percent.

No, that move didn’t signal that the two-plus months between the June 9-10 MLB draft and the Aug. 15 deadline for teams to sign their picks would be long and clenched. You could figure that out months ago just by sticking a thumb in the air to see which way the wind was blowing.

A fear (some would say paranoia) over the economy sent front offices into virtual lockdown mode in the offseason, with contract figures dropping and long-term deals becoming almost nonexistent. Though clubs are drawing better than expected early this season (attendance is down only about 5 percent from last year), teams have offered deep discounts on tickets and done every manner of promotional gymnastics imaginable to move multigame packages.

That’s the present. The future, which will be introduced to the world next Tuesday, is coming into a draft landscape affected by commissioner Bud Selig’s fight to rein in draft bonuses. It’s also largely represented by Scott Boras; the super agent could have more than half of the top 10 picks, including the biggest prize of all - San Diego State right-hander Stephen Strasburg.

It seems almost a foregone conclusion at this point that Strasburg will shatter the previous record for a signing bonus, set in 2001 by USC’s Mark Prior, who got $10.5 million. There has been talk all spring that Boras will tout the cherubic right-hander more like an experienced pitcher than a college draft pick, asking for a six-year major league deal in the neighborhood of $50 million. Even if he doesn’t get that much for Strasburg, there’s plenty of room between $50 million and $10.5 million.

That gives Boras space to set the ceiling both for other draft picks this year and No. 1 selections in the future. Selig’s latest move probably won’t curtail the bonuses much, but MLB has been firm with clubs that get cavalier with the signing process, and lower recommendations make discrepancies all the more glaring.

The next two months, then, will put a pair of questions in a crucible: How much economic leeway do MLB teams feel they have to spend on draft picks, and how worried are they about running afoul of Selig?

The Nationals are, of course, in the crosshairs of the issue, with Strasburg being their likely choice and a sticky summer of negotiations the subsequent result. The dilemma has another layer on a local level since Washington didn’t get a deal done with first-rounder Aaron Crow last year and therefore must sign whomever it takes with the 10th overall pick.

Quite simply, the Nationals will have to balance Boras’ demands, the frustration of a dwindling fan base and the fact that they need to sign the 10th pick or risk losing the choice altogether. It has been suggested that predicament will make signability a chief concern at No. 10 so they can get a deal done and spend the rest of the time working on Strasburg.

And everyone will be watching because this draft - with a once-in-a-generation prospect and an enterprising agent set against a cautious commissioner in an uncertain climate - will have ramifications for more teams than just the Nationals and not just for this year.

It will test how much weight the slotting system carries, if it has any at all. It should be a fascinating - or frustrating, depending on where your interests lie - summer.

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