Whittled down to its core, the disparity in contract terms between the Washington Nationals and Aaron Crow when the clock struck midnight Saturday was $500,000.
Crow, the ninth overall pick in this summer’s draft, wanted a $4 million signing bonus. The Nationals offered $3.5 million and the two sides couldn’t get any closer before baseball’s mandated deadline passed.
However, the philosophical gap between Washington and the former University of Missouri pitcher was wider. And for that reason Crow pitched for the Fort Worth Cats of the independent American Association on Saturday while the Nationals seethed over the time, money and energy wasted over the last year to wind up with no first-round pick in uniform.
“We have no regrets over taking him,” general manager Jim Bowden said. “We only regret that we weren’t able to sign him.”
A nearly 30-minute group interview with Bowden on Saturday at Nationals Park, combined with some e-mailed responses from Randy Hendricks (one of Crow’s agents), revealed negotiations proved unproductive from the start so they had little chance of getting finalized.
Informal discussions between the two began before the June 5 draft, with Hendricks telling the Nationals Crow sought a major league contract and a signing bonus well above baseball’s recommended $2.1 million slot.
Bowden wasn’t fazed, because most every top prospect had similar predraft demands. He assumed the price would decline through back-and-forth negotiations.
But talks between the two sides were scarce. The Nationals initially offered $2.1 million and a minor league contract, then waited for a response. Hendricks didn’t submit his first monetary counteroffer until Aug. 12, according to Bowden. The initial asking price: $9 million and a major league contract, more than any player in this year’s draft received.
“Had we known that Aaron Crow’s number was $9 million, we would have passed on the player,” Bowden said. “We don’t have it in the budget to pay that kind of money.”
Hendricks didn’t respond to an e-mail questioning why his side waited more than two months to submit its first offer, but he acknowledged that the asking price fell considerably in the final hour Friday night.
Over those last few days, the Nationals tweaked their offer up to $2.2 million and for the first time in franchise history offered a major league contract to a draft pick. Still no response from Crow’s team.
At about 6:30 p.m. Friday, the Nationals withdrew the major league contract offer because they only would have agreed to that had Crow taken an MRI on his shoulder and elbow. At that point, it was too late for Crow to take the test and for the results to come back in time.
The Nationals increased the signing bonus, up to $3 million around 10:30 p.m., after the only pitcher drafted ahead of Crow (Brian Matusz) agree to a $3.2 million bonus with the Baltimore Orioles.
Hendricks responded via e-mail to Bowden at 11:44 p.m. with a revised offer: $4.4 million, less than half of the initial $9 million request.
Over the final 16 minutes, the two sides swapped figures via e-mail and over the phone, until the disparity dropped to $500,000. The Nationals’ final offer was $3.5 million. Hendricks’ last offer was $4 million.
“Common sense says a compromise deal for the number 9 pick is $4 million,” Hendricks said Saturday. “We believe we offered the Nationals a very fair compromise deal and they turned it down. So we move on.”
Thus, the clock struck midnight, and no agreement was reached.
“We tried to understand where they were coming from,” Bowden said. “We tried to value the player properly, and we tried to negotiate a contract to sign the player. But that being said, we’re not going to be bullied into just giving a number just because someone says, ‘You’ve got to pay ‘X.’”
Given Crow’s lofty demands from the start and lack of interest in budging until the very end, some might question whether the 21-year-old right-hander wanted to join the Nationals organization.
Hendricks said that was not the case.
“The decision to turn down the offer the Nationals made was made pragmatically and had to do with the financial terms,” Hendricks said. “We would not have made an offer to them lower than we wanted to make if Aaron had decided he did not want to sign with the Nationals.”
Crow was the only one of the top 19 players drafted in June not to sign by the end of the night Friday. The Nationals will be compensated with the 10th overall pick in next year’s draft. They’ll also almost certainly get one of the top three selections, based on their win-loss record at the end of the season.
“There’s a lot of pitching in next year’s draft,” Bowden said. “And we feel confident that with our 10th pick next year there will be a Crow or a similar-talented player sitting there for us. We’ve just got to wait 10 months.”