- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Washington Nationals’ work will be just beginning if, as expected, they select Stephen Strasburg with the first pick in the Major League Baseball draft Tuesday.

What will follow is weeks of grappling with a most difficult and - for baseball - far-reaching question: How much money should this highly touted hurler be awarded before he dons a major league uniform?

$10 million? $20 million? $50 million?

The reported contract figures certainly are out there.

“There are numbers thrown around that are absolutely crazy for a guy who’s never thrown a pitch in major league baseball,” said Steve Phillips, a former general manager with the New York Mets who’s now a baseball analyst with ESPN.

The record for the most money paid to a newly drafted player is the $10.5 million the Chicago Cubs gave pitcher Mark Prior in 2001. Several other players - Mark Teixeira, then of the Texas Rangers, and David Price of the Tampa Bay Rays - have neared the $10 million figure.

Strasburg’s agent, Scott Boras, appears certain to seek considerably more for his client, but Nationals officials downplayed talk of a record-breaking contract.

“I assure you it’s irrelevant to me what hyperbole and mythology has been written,” Nationals president Stan Kasten said. “I have no expectation that this year’s draft is going to be revolutionary in terms of pay, especially with the economy down. I don’t see that in the cards, and it certainly won’t be happening here.”

With Strasburg, the Nationals face the ultimate risk-reward situation: The club is in position to sign a player viewed as one of the most talented prospects in perhaps decades. But the Nationals also could be on the hook for millions of wasted dollars if he does not perform as expected.

They face considerable pressure from fans to sign Strasburg because they failed to sign their first-round pick last season, Missouri pitcher Aaron Crow.

Despite the failure to sign Crow, Nationals ownership recently has shown a willingness to spend money on players. The team was an aggressive bidder for Teixeira, one of the most coveted free agents on the market last winter, and signed outfielder Adam Dunn to a two-year, $20 million contract.

But spending money on drafted players with no major league experience is a whole other ballgame.

“With the unproven amateur player coming into pro ball, there are so many factors that come into play in terms of their ability to perform,” Phillips said. “I think it’s by far the most significant risk. For all of the great amateur players that signed to come into professional ball, there’s a long list of guys that had success as anticipated. But there’s also a long list of guys that haven’t lived up to expectations.”

Prior, for example, pitched well with the Cubs in 2003 but later struggled with injuries. He has not appeared in the major leagues since 2006.

Ben McDonald, a top pick in 1989 with the Baltimore Orioles who often is compared with Strasburg, won just 78 games in a nine-year career.

The risk, however, lies not just in giving a big-money contract to a player who flops. There is risk in not signing the player perceived as the best available.

In 2002, the Pittsburgh Pirates drafted pitcher Bryan Bullington with the top pick, passing on more heralded prospects like Cole Hamels, Prince Fielder and Zack Greinke - players the club feared it would not be able to sign.

Bullington appeared in just six games for the Pirates and has struggled with injuries. He currently is a reliever in the Toronto Blue Jays’ organization, shuffling between the big league club and its AAA affiliate in Las Vegas.

Hamels, meanwhile, holds down a spot in the starting rotation of the World Series champion Philadelphia Phillies. Fielder led the National League in home runs in 2007, and Greinke leads the majors with a 1.55 ERA.

The issue of signability has led some baseball officials to push quietly for a hard salary scale for drafted players, similar to that of the NBA and NHL.

“The purpose of the draft is so the worst teams can get better and sign the best players,” said Harold Reynolds, a former major leaguer and current MLB Network analyst. “If that’s not working, then the draft is meaningless. You might as well have everybody be a free agent and let guys sign whoever they want to sign with. There has to be a system in place where everybody is signable and the worst teams can get the best players.”

But another train of thought suggests that a record-breaking contract for Strasburg still could be a bargain for the Nationals.

J.C. Bradbury, an economist and associate professor at Kennesaw State University who is writing a book on valuing baseball players, said his calculations show that an average major league pitcher is worth about $7 million annually.

Thus, he theorizes, if Strasburg signs a six-year, $50 million deal and starts for the Nationals next year, he could nearly live up to the value of the contract simply by performing at the league average.

If he becomes a superstar, Bradbury said, the Nationals actually could save money.

In some ways, a long-term contract of that nature for Strasburg would be similar in structure, if not money, to contracts offered to the game’s more established young players.

The five-year, $45 million contract the Nationals recently gave third baseman Ryan Zimmerman is a classic example of an increasingly common deal that offers immediate financial security to the player while providing cost certainty to the team.

Such contracts, however, are rarely offered to a player until he is established on a major league roster, and no player ever has negotiated such a contract as a condition of signing with a team.

“They just paid Ryan Zimmerman $45 million, and he’s a face-of-the-franchise guy,” Reynolds said. “So now you’re going to go out and pay a guy in college who’s never thrown a pitch the same contract? I think it’s absurd.”

Indeed, the issue of perception looms large when dealing with rookie contracts - and not just in baseball.

The NFL’s Detroit Lions in April signed the draft’s top overall pick, quarterback Matthew Stafford, to a six-year contract worth as much as $72 million with $41 million of it guaranteed.

Major League Baseball does not restrict what teams can pay players, but it issues recommendations on signing bonuses for first-round players.

Commissioner Bud Selig has called for a 10 percent decline in bonuses this year because of the economy, but there is little the league can do to prevent teams from paying more than what is recommended.

Kasten, among others in the game, said he expected baseball and its players to discuss a hard slotting system during negotiations for the next collective bargaining agreement in 2012.

Some say a record contract for Strasburg - or the unwillingness or inability of the Nationals to sign him - could hasten calls for change.

“The Strasburg situation may ultimately be the tipping point to deal with this,” Phillips said.

• Tim Lemke can be reached at tlemke@washingtontimes.com.

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