- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Washington Nationals’ brain trust put on quite a show in the interview room on draft day last year as the team was outside losing another game.

The club hung a banner made just for the occasion, above which were placed poster-sized photos of the Nats’ three most recent top picks - Ryan Zimmerman, Chris Marrero, Ross Detwiler.

Here’s what I wrote at the time:

“Next year on this day, we can likely expect to see a photo of the Nationals’ No. 1 draft choice Thursday - highly touted Aaron Crow, a 21-year-old right-hander out of the University of Missouri.”

Wrong again.

There will be no photo of Aaron Crow behind the Nationals’ decision-makers Tuesday as they talk about their picks in the 2009 draft.

In one of the worst crimes disgraced former general manager Jim Bowden and the Lerner family committed against fans in this town, the Nationals failed to sign Crow, their No. 1 pick, for what at the mid-August deadline amounted to about a $500,000 difference.

Two days before that deadline, Bowden was talking tough about the moment that arrives Tuesday.

“Our scouting department is not going to complain if we walk into next year’s draft and get two picks in the top 10,” Bowden said at the time. “That won’t be a complaint. … We hope to sign Crow. We’re going to work hard to sign Crow. But it is good to know that at the end of the day, if you don’t do it, you’re still going to get two of the top 10 next year.”

Well, now they have just that - two picks in the top 10.

It’s not quite as clean as Bowden predicted, though.

For one thing, Crow, the ninth pick last year, has enhanced his stature with scouts while pitching for the independent Fort Worth Cats. He now could wind up as high as the second pick Tuesday, so he may have been the real deal.

And Bowden failed to mention this detail: If the Nationals fail to sign the compensation pick, designated “9B,” they got in this year’s draft for not signing Crow last year, that draft pick is lost for good. There is no rollover compensation for 2010.

How’s that for leverage for whoever represents 9B?

Maybe the Nationals will hang a picture of Bowden wearing his Manny Ramirez wig with the caption, “You won’t have to negotiate with this man anymore.”

Or maybe they will just have an altar set up with a statue of Stephen Strasburg (hopefully not sculpted by the duo that did the three travesties out in the center-field plaza).

The Nats, as they tried to do last year, likely will attempt to block out the 2009 team and sell the future yet again - only this year they can’t afford for it to be an illusion.

This year, the Nationals must sign their No. 1 pick or else just turn in their major league charter and join the Atlantic League.

That pick, of course, is expected to be Strasburg, the San Diego State hurler heralded as the hottest pitching prospect in decades.

Tuesday marks the start of what likely will be a two-month drama played out on a national stage as the Nationals lock horns with agent Scott Boras, who many fans believe has a set of horns buried inside his skull.

Boras reportedly will seek a figure in the neighborhood of $50 million, and as we know, that’s not a neighborhood in which the Nationals’ owners, the Lerner family, shop. They may own $50 million neighborhoods, but they don’t shop there.

A more realistic figure may be somewhere between $15 million and $20 million - either of which still would represent a record amount. The Lerners like to set records in making money, not spending it.

Boras may not be able to get $50 million for Strasburg - it seems ridiculous - but he does hold good leverage in negotiations.

The Nationals handed him that leverage through a series of poor decisions and even worse circumstances that turned the franchise into a national joke (the latest: the dispute over the sale of kosher hot dogs at Nationals Park that surfaced on cable news outlets).

As a result, the club faces tremendous pressure to sign Strasburg - this franchise can’t afford one more devastating embarrassment.

• Thom Loverro can be reached at tloverro@washingtontimes.com.

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