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Strasburg vs. Nats is shaping up as biggest battle in draft history

A Washington Nationals official pretended on Sunday not to know a thing about Stephen Strasburg, the San Diego State pitching phenom who's expected to go first to the Nats in Tuesday's draft. "What's Tuesday? Who's Strasburg?'' he said, feigning ignorance.

Strasburg, meanwhile, has stopped corresponding with a buddy who works for MLB. "He's shut it down,'' the friend said. The friend assumes the Strasburg strategy is to bunker up.

Everyone involved understands now what's coming next is the amateur Armageddon.

The negotiations between the Nationals and Strasburg's adviser, Scott Boras, are getting crazy, and technically they haven't even started yet.

People familiar with Boras' thinking expect the asking price to be $50 million, which would blow away the $10.5 million record for an amateur. While the best amateur prospects, such as Mark Prior, Mark Teixeira and David Price, all have signed in the $10 million range, Boras is expected to use Japanese import Daisuke Matsuzaka, who received $52 million from Boston after the Red Sox paid a $51 million posting fee, as the real Strasburg comp. Boras will argue Strasburg, who turns 21 next month, shouldn't receive anything less than the 28-year-old Matsuzaka (also a Boras client), that he is as good (or better since he's younger and throws harder) and that the dynamic is the same.

"There are rare opportunities for franchises to obtain a talent that is extraordinary," Boras said Monday. "In most instances, those opportunities come via free agency. Teams that capitalize on these opportunities can sway the competitive balance.''

As a free agent, some estimate Strasburg could garner something approaching $100 million, even though he hasn't pitched at any level above the Mountain West Conference. But as an amateur draftee, well, let's just say it's going to be interesting.

The Nationals are sending signals that they're intending to try to adhere to draft precedent and are thinking more along the lines of the $10.5 million mark, which could blow up negotiations. There are still those who wonder whether the Nationals might pass on the expense and angst expected to accompany the Strasburg pick and take someone else, perhaps Dustin Ackley, who plays first base for North Carolina but is projected as a center fielder (something else that the Nats need). But an early tipoff of Washington's seriousness regarding Strasburg occurred back on Feb. 20, when three members of the Nationals'-owning Lerner family flew from Washington to Los Angeles to watch Strasburg dominate Bethune-Cookman at the Urban Youth Academy in Compton, Calif. Nothing has changed since, except that Strasburg's value has gone up.

While the Nationals appear well on their way to the worst record in baseball again, 82-year-old billionaire owner Ted Lerner is widely respected in the game and thought to be fully committed to winning. So a pass on Strasburg would be a shock. Seattle and San Diego (Strasburg's hometown team) follow Washington at picks Nos. 2 and 3, and while some previous amateurs who sought large bonuses dropped precipitously (Rick Porcello fell all the way to No. 29, and the Tigers got him for what seems like a pittance -- $7.3 million -- now that he's a 20-year-old pitching successfully in the majors), that isn't expected to happen here.

Strasburg's fastball consistently reaches the upper 90s after he threw only around 90 mph in high school (he has hit 100-103 on many occasions), he has a "legit hammer'' (curve ball) in the words of one Nationals person and wows scouts by carrying his stuff into the late innings. One scout marveled at Strasburg hitting 99 mph in the ninth inning of a recent game. "No one does that,'' the scout said. Well, except maybe closers.

Strasburg's once-in-a-decade arm is said to have been treated with comparative kid gloves by Tony Gwynn, the Hall of Fame player who is San Diego State's head coach. Strasburg is also described by people close to him as relatively egoless. And, according to a family friend, he is smart enough to have been recruited by Harvard, Yale and Stanford before deciding to stay close to home at San Diego State.

Yet, for all the accolades heaped on Strasburg, the history of ballyhooed amateur pitchers is no better than mixed. Thomas Boswell of The Washington Post studied former No. 1-overall picks who were pitchers, and while several, such as Andy Benes, Mike Moore and Floyd Bannister, had nice, long careers, not one who went first was a perennial All-Star or a Hall of Famer. In the 40-plus-year history of the draft, the best pitchers taken in the top five were probably Josh Beckett, Kevin Brown and Dwight Gooden, and Beckett's the only one with a chance to reach Cooperstown. Some others who were picked No. 1 or considered a phenom flamed out, such as Brien Taylor, Todd Van Poppel, David Clyde and MattHarrington, who never signed. Boras is likely to draw a distinction between college and high school pitchers, however.

The $50 million figure still might actually be considered low if Strasburg were a free agent and could sign with anyone. But since he'll be tied to one team, the guesses of baseball executives generally range from the low- to mid-$20 millions, up to one National League executive predicting $30 million. Of course from the Nationals' perspective, if they go to even $15 million, that's still about a 45 percent rise above the record of $10.5 million, which is what John Boggs got for hotshot USC pitcher Mark Prior, who coincidentally was also a right-hander out of San Diego.

And let's not forget that the $10.5 million bonus was in the days before teams that failed to sign their picks were rewarded with a replacement pick the following year -- and also before the economy went south. Baseball executives say commissioner Bud Selig and MLB are strongly urging teams to try to sign similar draft slots for about 10 percent less than last year. Memos have been sent to that effect. So there's added pressure on the Nats not to go nuts.

Leverage is the key, and leverage for drafted baseball players is generally very limited since there's no other comparable league to MLB. However, word going around the game is that Strasburg's team could threaten to send him to play in Japan, where he would become a valuable commodity to any team that sought to post him, as was the case with Matsuzaka. "Can you imagine what kind of posting fee they could get for this guy?'' one American league executive mused regarding the potential of a Japanese team holding the right-hander's rights.

There's nothing to prevent Strasburg from going to Japan, and Boston's winter signing of amateur pitcher Junichi Tazawa would in fact make it difficult for MLB to argue that Strasburg couldn't make the opposite jump. But while someone familiar with Boras' strategy said they are "looking at everything,'' it's still hard for many to imagine a San Diego kid delaying his big-league dream to play in Japan.

Strasburg could also threaten to play for an independent team in a more typical play. Boras has represented a couple tough-minded amateur standouts -- including J.D. Drew and Luke Hochevar -- who declined to sign and instead played independent ball. But not every young star has the stomach for such a gamble. High school pitcher Matt Harrington once turned down $4.9 million from the Colorado Rockies, only to blow out his arm and never make the majors.

Of course, the real leverage that Boras and Strasburg have is the Nationals' own situation, which includes: 1) a terrible team; 2) awful pitching; 3) a rich and committed owner, who tried to sign Boras client Mark Teixeira for about $200 million and is believed to have an estimated net worth of about $4.5 billion (when the stock market was in freefall late last year the 82-year-old Ted Lerner is said to have told an associate, "I have buildings, not bull----''); and, last but not least, 4) the noteworthy failure to sign their No. 1 pick last year, right-hander Aaron Crow, who is expected to go in the top five this year. While it's true that the Nationals received a replacement pick for Crow (No. 10 overall), and if they fail to sign Strasburg they would stack the top two picks next year, that would be a public relations nightmare for the Nats.

"If they don't take [Strasburg] and sign him, they might as well give up,'' the owner of one competing team said. "You'd have to wonder why they're in business. He's got them by the [gonads].''

We'll see if that's true in the coming weeks. In light of all the past flame-outs, Strasburg still has to be considered a gamble -- though it's a gamble most executives believe the Nationals can ill afford not to take.

All the elements are there for what figures to be the biggest knock-down, drag-out fight in draft history.

• Some other well-regarded players in a draft that is generally considered no better than average overall include Ackley, UNC pitcher Alex White, Crow, Georgia high school outfielder Donovan Tate, California high school pitcher Tyler Matzek, Texas high school pitchers Shelby Miller and Matt Purke, St. Paul Saints pitcher Tanner Scheppers, Georgia high school pitcher Zack Wheeler, St. Louis high school pitcher Jacob Turner and University of Missouri pitcher Kyle Gibson, who reportedly is experiencing an arm issue lately in a case of very bad timing. There's a rumor that the Pirates may take Boston College catcher Tony Sanchez with the No. 5 pick a few years after famously passing on catcher Matt Wieters to take Clemson reliever Daniel Moskos.

• The Diamondbacks' bullpen, which has been worn down in the absence of ace pitcher Brandon Webb and generally hasn't been very good, threw nine no-hit innings in a 9-6, 18-inning win over San Diego on Sunday. While Arizona's bullpen has struggled, it could have two relievers of interest to other teams at the trade deadline -- Tony Pena and Chad Qualls.

• Boston seems in a hurry to trade Brad Penny with John Smoltz on the way back and top prospect Clay Buchholz thriving at Pawtucket.

• The Red Sox reportedly were scouting Braves outfielder Jeff Francoeur. But one Red Sox person didn't sound excited about what he's seen.

Mariano Rivera was truly annoyed at Joe Girardi for ordering an intentional walk of Evan Longoria on Saturday, which was clearly the right move (though B.J. Upton followed with a hit). Rivera made a case, though, by getting Longoria, who just returned from injury, to ground to second base to save the next game, a 4-3 Yankees victory.

Edwin Jackson, who was throwing 99 mph in his most recent win, has been a godsend for the Tigers.

• Texas acquitted itself nicely by splitting in New York and Boston and looks like a real threat. Its infield defense is much, much better with Elvis Andrus at shortstop and Michael Young at third base.

• Part of the issue with Vicente Padilla is that he is not well-liked in his own clubhouse, though it's probably too early to release him and eat the rest of his $9 million salary.

• Congrats to good guy Bobby Abreu, who recorded his 2,000th hit Sunday. Abreu recorded the hit, a double off Porcello, in Comerica Park, the site of his big home-run derby victory in 2005. Abreu, the 257th to hit the 2,000-hit mark, could possibly surpass Hall of Famers Bill Mazeroski (2,016), Harmon Killebrew (2,086) and Gary Carter (2,092) this year.

• Ran into the great Steve Palermo at Yankee Stadium on Sunday. He said the umpiring has been made more difficult by "quirky'' stadiums, such as Citi Field, with its interesting overhang in right field.

Roy Halladay is amazing. There, I said it.

• The Dodgers' magic continues, with two straight walkoff hits by Andre Ethier to beat the Phillies, who defeated them in the NLCS last year and had won seven straight.

• My goal of catching Nick Swisher on Twitter wasn't helped when he homered Sunday and I just sat in the press box. He gained 4,000-plus additional followers while I gained a measly 42. Still, I am not giving up. To follow me, go here.

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