- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Washington Nationals on Tuesday selected flamethrowing phenom Stephen Strasburg in the draft, a move the club hopes will rejuvenate one of baseball’s worst franchises - provided they can sign the 20-year-old pitcher to what is expected to be a record-breaking contract.

The Nationals, picking first for the first time in franchise history, had been expected to take Strasburg ever since they finished last season with a 59-102 record, the worst mark in the major leagues.

Strasburg, whose fastball has been clocked as high as 102 mph, does several things for the beleaguered franchise.

The San Diego State pitcher gives the Nationals one of the most coveted pitching prospects of the past 25 years. He adds a drawing card to a team whose attendance has dropped by nearly a third this season. And, he provides a signal that the Lerner family, which has been criticized for not spending enough money on the team since buying it in 2006, is serious about bringing a contender to Washington.

“Stephen was at the top of all our (player ranking) lists at the top of the season, and he stayed at top of everybody’s list,” acting general manager Mike Rizzo said. “We monitored him closely. We saw every start he made, and I don’t think we ever wavered from him at the top of our draft board.”

But to get all that, the Nationals must sign Strasburg by Aug. 17, the Major League Baseball deadline for teams to sign their draft picks.

Strasburg’s adviser, superagent Scott Boras, is expected to demand a record deal for Strasburg, one that would surpass the $10.5 million signing bonus given to Mark Prior of Southern Cal in 2001.

Reports this spring suggested Strasburg could get a guaranteed six-year, $50 million deal, though the Nationals steadfastly say they won’t upset the structure of the draft for one player.

In some ways, Washington has no choice but to sign Strasburg.

The franchise over the past two seasons has become the laughingstock of baseball, trudging through a 2008 season full of injuries and disappointing performances.

The name of then-General Manager Jim Bowden surfaced in July in an FBI investigation surrounding teams’ practices of signing players in the Dominican Republic. In August, the Nationals failed to sign their first-round pick, Missouri pitcher Aaron Crow.

The news only got more embarrassing this spring, when it was revealed that Esmailyn Gonzalez, a Dominican shortstop who got a $1.4 million bonus from the team in 2006, actually was four years older than the team thought. His real name: Carlos Alvarez. And this spring, he was 23, not 19 years old.

Fallout from the revelation and its connection to the Dominican investigation led the team to fire Special Assistant Jose Rijo. Bowden resigned March 1, saying he had “become a distraction.”

On the field, the Nationals are off to an even worse start than last year, their 15-40 record the worst in baseball by eight games as of Tuesday.

Strasburg might be the one person who can give the team some hope.

As a junior, Strasburg went 13-1 with a 1.32 ERA for the Aztecs in 2009, helping the school reach its first NCAA tournament in 18 years. He is a finalist for the Golden Spikes Award, given to the top college baseball player in the country, and was the only college player selected to the U.S. Olympic team last summer.

Strasburg’s fastball frequently touches 100 mph. He also throws a devastating slider that many scouts say is better than his fastball. The right-hander threw a no-hitter against Air Force on May 8 and struck out 23 batters in a game against Utah last year.

He’s been called the best college pitcher ever and the best pitching prospect of a generation.

His selection was greeted with tepid applause at the Nationals’ sparsely attended draft party Tuesday night at Nationals Park, partially because it was such a foregone conclusion, as team public relations representatives handed out a press release that one said had been written months ago.

“We weren’t going to pass on the best player in the draft,” Rizzo said. “We felt he was the best player in the draft, and as we’ve stated many times before, we take the best player available.”

If the Nationals fail to sign Strasburg by the August deadline, they would lose his rights and receive a compensatory pick next year, as they did when they failed to sign Crow last year.

Washington also had the 10th pick in this year’s draft, which they used to select Stanford closer Drew Storen. The 6-foot-2 right-hander could fill an immediate need for the major league club, as the bullpen has struggled to finish games. In 42 2/3 innings this season at Stanford, Storen struck out 66 batters and recorded seven saves.

The Nationals became the first franchise in MLB history to have two picks in the top 10.

If the Nationals don’t sign Strasburg and continue on their current pace, they would have the top two picks in the 2010 draft.

“We don’t negotiate through the media, so I’m not going to begin now,” Rizzo said.

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