- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 12, 2008

There are two ways to approach the Nationals’ dilemma with first-round pick Aaron Crow as negotiations head into their final few days. One is the baseball side, and one is the goodwill side.

The baseball side says it’s foolish to overpay Crow, a college junior who is believed to be seeking at least $4 million from the Nationals, possibly more. He’s a pitcher trying to sign with an organization that has plenty of them. Washington could have to pay the No. 1 pick next year and likely would be able to get Crow cheaper next year if they draft him again with a compensatory pick.

There’s certainly a limit to what’s appropriate to give Crow, especially as it relates to how the Nationals are perceived among agents. Given the definite possibility Crow is seeking a major league deal, the Nationals must decide whether it’s worth giving in to a pitcher that might not be any better than what they have.

Then there’s the goodwill side, which points to a fan base that’s growing increasingly impatient with the build-for-the-future plan and wants to see some sign that things are going in the right direction. Even if the Nationals overpay slightly to get Crow, they at least could show season-ticket holders they’re serious about winning in a couple years.

That’s why it’s a tough week to be general manager Jim Bowden. He has to decide - by midnight Friday - what makes more sense: giving in to a pitcher whose agent might have overvalued his worth or risk putting off some fans who want the Nationals to spend more on players than is probably prudent.

Don’t feel too bad for Bowden, however. To an extent, the Nationals put themselves in this position.

They have touted The Plan for two years, to the point it has earned capital letters, and sold tickets at Nationals Park based on the idea they would welcome fans into a shiny new stadium while giving them a chance to see the team grow.

This spring, they touted their willingness to pay for draft picks, crediting the Lerner family for giving them the money to spend on player development and pointing to the $1.8 million bonus given to sixth-rounder Jack McGeary last year. In June, they boldly took several players - Crow, second-rounder Destin Hood, third-rounder Daniel Espinosa (who signed yesterday) and fifth-rounder Adrian Nieto (who agreed to terms over the weekend) - for whom signability was known to be an issue.

That’s all fine and good, but it becomes a little tougher to believe when the team then takes a hard line with draft picks and says it won’t go much above slot recommendations for its players.

It could be a negotiating strategy leading up to the Aug. 15 deadline, but this much is true: Washington is dealing with a handful of picks who have the impression it will pay dearly for their services. It is part of the reason the team waited a week to announce the Nieto signing, not wanting other players’ agents to know they gave the high school catcher nearly twice his slot value, according to a source familiar with negotiations.

There’s a strong likelihood the team won’t sign a big free agent this winter, meaning the draft - which Bowden has called the most important decision the Nationals make all year - might double as the team’s best chance to endear itself to fans for the year.

Caught between that notion and the demands of a college pitcher who knows this is his best chance to get big money up front, Washington has some decisions to make.

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