That $50 million figure that's being attached to ballyhooed college-pitching prospect Stephen Strasburg is no joke. Baseball people who have spoken to Strasburg's adviser Scott Boras say they believe that's the figure Boras has in mind for Strasburg, the San Diego State pitcher some are calling a once-in-a-decade talent.
Whether Boras is naming the figure or just dropping hints isn't known. What is known is that big-league execs are bracing for the $50 million bomb to be dropped come June's amateur draft.
Boras isn't speaking about this publicly. But in discussions with other baseball people, he's saying quite a bit apparently. One club executive said Boras has found at least one comparable hurler for the right-hander Strasburg, who is said to have clocked between 100 and 103 mph 14 times in one recent game.
"He is Sidd [bleeping] Finch," Boras allegedly said to this one executive, referring to the first true fantasy player, invented for Sports Illustrated back in 1985.
Well, at these prices, he had better be.
The ceiling for drafted players historically has been about $10 million. Mark Prior ($10.5 million), Mark Teixeira ($9.5 million) and David Price ($8.8 million) were all very high draft choices seen as big-time future stars who commanded close to $10 million (though only Price went No. 1-overall due to monetary considerations). Most No. 1-overall picks go for between $3 million and $7 million, with only that oh-so-rare handful coming close to that $10-million ceiling.
Now Boras is said to want $50 million on a six-year contract, a contract proposal that was first floated as a possibility by Peter Gammons. It seemed fanciful when it was first thrown out there. But apparently it's deadly serious.
Besides Finch, executives say they believe the other comparable player Boras sees is Daisuke Matsuzaka, who got $52 million over six years from the Red Sox after starring for years in the Japanese League. Boras, who declined to comment, apparently is suggesting the tens of thousands of previously drafted players over the past 40 years aren't in Strasburg's league.
That might be true -- the reviews of Strasburg are extraordinary -- but this may still be Boras' toughest sell yet. To raise the bar by 400 percent seems like a long shot, at best.
The Nationals have the first pick, and assuming they take Strasburg, this promises to be the stickiest, thorniest, craziest amateur negotiation ever, easily beating the ones Boras had with Stick Michael over Yankees draftee Brien Taylor in 1991 and with Frank Coonelly over Pirates draftee Pedro Alvarez last year.
This one potentially pits Boras against Nationals president Stan Kasten, a Bud Selig ally, longtime Boras combatant (they battled over Greg Maddux and Andruw Jones when Kasten ran the Braves) and noted hardliner who cheerily admits to not liking agents (or sports writers, for that matter).
"We intend to take the best player; we know what No. 1s get and we intend to sign that player," Kasten said, noting that he is hereby issuing a moratorium on speaking about the subject of the No. 1 pick. The subject is that touchy.
Kasten isn't saying who the Nationals believe the top player is. But another Nationals person made clear who he thinks is best. Speaking of Strasburg, that Nationals person said, "He's good. He throws 98, plus he's got a hammer," referring to his sweeping breaking ball
Kasten indicated he has heard the $50 million rumors, and while mentioning the 40-year history of the draft, he insisted, "No one's situation is going to change the industry."
If that's the case, Boras would undoubtedly prefer that the Nationals pass. The Mariners, one of baseball's richer teams, are waiting at No. 2 and would probably like nothing more than to combine Strasburg with Felix Hernandez.
Kasten's remark about "knowing what No. 1s get" suggests that the Nationals don't intend to go beyond the $10 million figure, though he didn't explicitly say as much. Another Nationals person predicted, "We'll pay the $10 million, and we'll get him signed."
The Nationals do indeed have history on their side. The precedent has long been set that $10 million is the ceiling. The leverage is very limited for these amateur players since no other league is comparable. If college players don't sign, they can return to college and hope for better a year later, or they can go to an independent league. None in the past have tried playing overseas, or even using that as leverage, but nothing can be ruled out in this once-in-a-generation case.
A couple top collegians represented by Boras have declined to sign after being selected and offered million-dollar bonuses, including J.D. Drew and Jason Varitek. But only rare players such as those two have the fortitude to try it.
Strasburg looks like a sure thing right now. But as esteemed Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell recently pointed out, the history of highly drafted pitchers is spotty. As Boswell mentioned, none of the No. 1-overall picks who were pitchers is headed to the Hall (Andy Benes, Tim Belcher, Mike Moore and Floyd Banister were the best No. 1-overall picks as pros), though the record of the top-five picks is a lot better (Josh Beckett, Kevin Brown and Dwight Gooden are among pitchers picked in the top five).
No matter, Boras apparently will try to make the case that Strasburg is otherworldly, and specifically that he is at least the equal of Matsuzaka, who got his $52 million after the Red Sox paid a $51 million posting fee. Boras will make the case Strasburg already has a top-five fastball, and top-five stuff overall, and that, unlike Matsuzaka, he's been treated with kid gloves throughout his formative years. Boras declined to discuss the upcoming negotiations or his suspected target figure but did gush about how Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, the San Diego State coach, has treated Strasburg. Gwynn pitches him only once a week, and never for more than 115 pitches.
If the Nationals do take Strasburg, as expected, there are at least a few factors in Boras' favor. While Kasten has been a longtime nemesis and isn't anxious to break ranks with what MLB wants, the Lerners generally have shown they are willing to pay for young talent. Plus Boras apparently had a very amicable, high-level negotiation this winter with Nationals owner Ted Lerner regarding Teixeira (though Teixeira went to the Yankees for $180 million, Washington is believed to have signaled a willingness to pay at least that, and probably more) and also seems to have a talent ally in Mike Rizzo, who's now handling interim GM duties for Washington and personally has experienced success drafting Boras clients as Arizona's scouting director (Stephen Drew, Max Scherzer).
The Nationals also will face tremendous pressure to sign Strasburg after failing to sign No. 1 draft choice Aaron Crow last year (National sources say Rizzo and deposed GM Jim Bowden argued to come much closer to or meet Crow's asking price, but Kasten/ownership cut off negotiations at $3.3 million). The pressure is even greater after Bowden was forced out following the revelation first reported by SI.com that the $1.4 million bonus believed to be given to a fake person called Esmailyn Gonzalez, 19, really went to a 23-year-old impostor named Carlos Alvarez. Some might suggest it's time they spend big bucks on a real deal.
The Nationals have the money (Ted Lerner has been estimated to be baseball's richest owner at about $4.5 billion, though in this falling economy it's difficult to gauge anyone's true net worth), and they certainly have the need. But they also have history on their side. That history says amateur players get $10 million tops. Strasburg should beat that figure. But the question is by how much.
Things have loosened up and are a lot more relaxed around the Nationals since Bowden was forced to resign following the Gonzalez/Alvarez revelation.
"Things are much better around here," one Nationals person whispered to me.
Is it because Bowden's not here? "I won't say that," Kasten said. "Jim's going through things personally. I expect him to be fully exonerated. He's assured me he will."
Kasten did agree that things seem different around the team. "But I wouldn't personalize it," he stressed. "Whenever there are questions or confusion, and it's cleared up, that's a good thing."
Well, here's one big question going around baseball: What took them so long? (That's a hard question for Kasten to answer since the press release said Bowden resigned; of course, we all know he was forced out.)
And one more question: How did Bowden last 15 years as a baseball general manager between Cincinnati and Washington when he alienated a large percentage of people in the game through more than a decade of dicey dealings, temper tantrums and inconsistent behavior?
Many of the folks who worked for Bowden admired his smarts and knowledge. But others speak of a Jekyll-and-Hyde personality that didn't help matters. "You never knew whether you were going to get the good Jim or the bad Jim," one former Nationals person said.
But beyond all the personality issues surrounding Bowden, and beyond the skimming issue currently being investigated by MLB and the FBI (and Bowden has maintained he's innocent), as one AL scout said, "He's left a mess ... There are some issues."
One issue that's more a symbol of the Bowden years is that Gonzalez/Alvarez is having "visa problems." That should be no surprise since traveling as an impostor is generally frowned upon.
Another issue is Bowden liked to collect toolsoutfielders, so the organization is left with an extreme excess of outfielders with great ability and little track record. They also have no proven center fielder. Scouts say Lastings Milledge isn't really a center fielder, but Kasten said "he's our guy for now." In any case, they are in the midst of trying to trade one or a few of these extra outfielders.
A bigger problem is not enough capable major-league pitchers, which necessitated them taking talented Jordan Zimmerman (whom Kasten, using Washington-ese, now calls "the presumptive fifth starter"). "We didn't want to take him," one other Nationals person said. They had no choice.
Nonetheless, things do seem much better lately with the Nats, even though baseball people figure to see another last-place finish in perhaps baseball's toughest division. Kasten said "there's an air of positive energy" and "things are smooth and professional and moving in the right direction." He attributes the improvement to "all the youth on the team," though, and not Bowden's exit.
It may be a little of each. Anyway, the Nats are better with a fresh start, and the new baseball operations chief Mike Rizzo brings the scouting expertise a team starting at the bottom absolutely needs. While sources say a person close to Kasten tried hard to get Kasten to consider Chuck LaMar (whose claim to fame is to finish last so often in Tampa Bay that it kept getting the top draft choice) for the GM job, Kasten will only say that he's had "many, many applicants" for the job that Rizzo's currently manning.
Kasten won't say this, but those other folks are probably wasting their breath, as Rizzo is said by baseball sources to have the support of the Lerners and is expected to eventually get the job full time. It's believed the Lerners were the ones who picked Bowden, so they have nowhere to go but up. Rizzo probably deserves the chance, anyway.
"I'm enjoying it," Rizzo said of his new role. "It's a big job. But I feel I'm prepared for it."
Before Angels ace John Lackey's negotiations were placed on hold by the need for an MRI and cortisone shot on his right elbow, and also the revelation he won't be ready start the season, the Angels and their ace were off to a slow start in talks.
Lackey, who's making $10 million in his walk year, was very disappointed with the Angels' opening offer, which he said appeared to reflect the team's wish that he take a hometown discount again. According to someone familiar with the talks, the Angels are estimated to have offered Lackey a four-year guarantee for close to $13 million a year, or somewhere around $50 million guaranteed (both Angels GM Tony Reagins and agent Steve Hilliard declined to comment on the specifics). Meanwhile, Lackey was quoted suggesting to Angels writers that his pitching numbers match up pretty closely to CC Sabathia's numbers in the American League (Lackey suggested his Milwaukee numbers be thrown out in the comparison since they are NL numbers).
It's no surprise the Angels' offer wasn't of the bank-breaking variety, as Lackey signed a team-friendly deal last time and is known to want to stay (who wouldn't want to be an Angel?). The Angels may also be slightly spooked by injuries suffered by Kelvim Escobar and Ervin Santana shortly after they signed long-term deals.
The Angels once again look like the safest bet to win their division, and they do a lot of things right, but they've struck out in their biggest negotiations in recent months. Both Teixeira and Sabathia turned down nine-figure offers from them this winter. And now Lackey doesn't appear to be quite the certainty to sign, either.
The idea to bat Derek Jeter first and Johnny Damon second was originally seen as experimental when it was proposed a few a days ago. But now it appears likely.
"We like what we see," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said of the idea that appears to have spawned from a dugout kibitzing session with hitting coach Kevin Long when Jeter was in the WBC and Damon was batting second a lot to get Jorge Posada and others extra at-bats.
While Girardi added that nothing's official, everyone around the Yankees seems excited by the switch. There are four reasons for this: 1) They like the left-handed Damon batting second when the opposing first baseman is more likely to be holding a runner on first; 2) Jeter usually has a higher on-base percentage than Damon; 3) Damon hits into fewer double plays; and 4) By batting the right-handed-hitting Jeter first, it breaks up the left-handed hitters since lefty-swinging Brett Gardner, who just won the center-field job, will be the No. 9 hitter.
Additionally, neither player minds one bit. Jeter summed up his feelings, saying, "It only means I get up a minute earlier."
• Pedro Martinez is continuing to be patient, and is hopeful that reputation plus team desperation will be the winning formula to get the contract he seeks, which is $5 million and up. According to a friend of Martinez's, he's "in no hurry" and more than willing to wait well into the season, if that's what it takes. So far, he is said to be receiving "bottom feeding" offers, which probably means about $1 million. The Dodgers, Indians, Pirates, Astros and Mets are seen as possibilities now. The Mets are still a long shot, but with Oliver Perez and John Maine not pitching up to par, they probably can't be counted out entirely -- though Livan Hernandez has looked good all spring and Freddy Garcia began with six scoreless in Triple-A and could move back into the picture. The Dodgers, who fit Martinez's preference of a National League contender, still make the most sense.
• Cole Hamels' elbow is feeling better and he's shooting to pitch April 10 in the Phillies' second series at Colorado.
• Baseball people are raving about top Orioles catching prospect Matt Wieters, who's being sent to the minors mostly to delay his arbitration and free agency by a year. According to an Orioles person, "Worst case scenario, we believe he'll have Jorge Posada's career ... and that's not too bad." The Orioles are well within their rights to send him down to push back his arbitration and free-agent eligibility by a year and save themselves money (and it's been done before), but for some reason it seems like players get more criticism than teams for making decisions based on monetary reasons.
• Sources indicate Jordan Schafer will win the Braves' center-field job.
• Reagins said it looks like Escobar is a little ahead of Santana as they endeavor to return, but both could be back by May, if all goes well.
• It was a split decision on e-mailers responding to my column saying Curt Schilling should be in the Hall of Fame. But even several of those who agreed that he should be in the Hall say they will be praying for a short speech. One suggested it should be no longer than Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. Since Lincoln's masterpiece is 263 words, I don't think that is a realistic goal.
• Recommended reading: Ex-Jays executive Bart Given's InsideTheMajors.com brings it. Perhaps Given will be looking to join Keith Law, another executive under GM J.P. Ricciardi in Toronto who's now in the media.
• Tom Gordon, one of the few players to have 100 wins, saves and holds, is looking like his old self with the Diamondbacks lately. Bill Chuck noted that Gordon is also one of three pitchers with four shoutouts and 150 saves, the others being Hall of Famers Dennis Eckersley (20, 390) and Hoyt Wilhelm (5, 201).
• Bill Chuck's note of the week: If Tom Glavine starts 6-2, he duplicates Tom Seaver's 311-205 lifetime mark.
• Chuck also credits the New York Times' Jack Curry with this note: In reference to Jeter, 34, Curry notes that the only team to win a pennant with a shortstop at least that age was the 1980 Phillies, who had Larry Bowa at shortstop.
• Jeter, incidentally, says he doesn't worry too much about all the critics who are hitting on defensive issues (and they are hitting him hard). Jeter has as thick a skin as anyone around. Jeter said that, like everything else, he has things to work on. But he disagrees with the generally held belief that he's not as good going to his left as he is to his right, coming in or going back.
• Something tells me the Yankees don't mind Alex Rodriguez rehabbing out in Colorado, 2,000 miles away, far from tabloid exposure.
• Good luck to Dontrelle Willis, a nice kid who went on the disabled list with anxiety disorder Sunday.