Jon Heyman
Friday August 14th, 2009

Guesses from a multitude of executives around baseball for ballyhooed/deified No. 1 pick Stephen Strasburg's eventual signing bonus have ranged from $12 million to $30 million. Every estimate represents a record bonus.

But here is another possibility: zero dollars.

With only a long weekend to go before the signing deadline, there's no evidence of progress in the negotiations between the rebuilding Nationals and Strasburg's agent, Scott Boras. It's possible the sides will not agree by midnight Monday, and that Strasburg will go unsigned and re-enter the draft pool in 2010.

These big-ticket draft deals almost invariably go down to the last few hours (or minutes), but there seems to be some extra negativity surrounding the Strasburg talks.

Nationals president Stan Kasten didn't return a call, and Boras declined to speak specifically about Strasburg. But Boras, cognizant of the accusation he is slow to agree, did speak generally about the tenor of talks involving his top clients, including six first-rounders this year. "Teams choose to negotiate at a very slow pace," he said. "We merely follow the pace being set."

Only a handful of first-rounders have signed so far, and most of them likely at the parameters of a deal done at draft time. That means the majority of signings will occur in the remaining days or hours before Monday's deadline. Boras' top clients this year include picks No. 1, 2, 3, 9, 13 and 30 in the first round, and while pick No. 3, Cartersville, Ga., high school outfielder Donavan Tate, is thought to be closing in on a deal with the Padres, it's uncertain if any of the others are close. On top of Strasburg and Tate, Boras' other four first-rounders are UNC outfielder Dustin Ackley (Seattle, No. 2), St. Louis high school pitcher Jacob Turner (Detroit, No. 9), USC shortstop Grant Green (Oakland, No. 13), and Gainesville, Fla., Outfielder LeVon Washington (Tampa Bay, No. 30).

The Nationals are thought to be willing to bestow on Strasburg the highest contract ever for an amateur draftee, beating the record $10.5 million of Mark Prior, who, like Strasburg, is a right-hander from San Diego. Boras client Mark Teixeira is one of a few other American amateurs to have signed for about $10 million. There appears to be something of a draft ceiling at $10 million -- so far, anyway.

But Boras sees Strasburg as a once-in-a-generation amateur talent and points out that baseball's revenues are up several fold, to about $6.5 billion, since Teixeira and Prior signed their deals in 2001. While the economy is in the midst of a recession, baseball continues to thrive. Attendance is down only about five percent this year and revenues may actually be flat or slightly up from a year ago.

Boras has heard the arguments that a big bonus for Strasburg will wreck the system. He counters by pointing out that he once got Ben McDonald $1 million, which was four times the previous record bonus of Andy Benes, and that didn't change a thing. Teixeira and Prior received their eight-figure bonuses eight years ago, and those didn't lead to a spate of similar or higher bonuses. In fact, Jeff Samardzija and David Price are among the few players to approach that $10 million figure since.

The Nationals' entire entourage of top decision-makers trekked out to Southern California in recent weeks to make a presentation to Strasburg. But while they may have taken bells and whistles with them, there is no evidence they presented an offer anywhere near the ballpark Strasburg is looking for.

The Nationals will cite the history of previous bonuses, and history has its limits. It also has a mixed record with big bonuses. While pitchers who happened to have been picked No. 1 overall have a rather mediocre record (Mike Moore, Tim Belcher and Benes are among the better ones), the history for drafted players who received bonuses of $5 million or more is almost universally positive, including Teixeira, J.D. Drew, Joe Mauer, Josh Beckett, Price and Rick Porcello. While Prior got hurt, the argument can be made that even he was probably worth that $10.5 million, if only for a good year or two.

Boras can also try to make a case for Strasburg's extraordinary value by citing rare trades of recently drafted prodigies. For instance, if the Nats were to sign Strasburg, then trade him in a year (draftees cannot be traded for one calendar year), Boras could argue they'd get a haul. Well-regarded recent draftees Andrew Miller and Cameron Maybin brought the Tigers a superstar in Miguel Cabrera. So a case could be made that Strasburg, who's considered far more valuable than ether Miller or Maybin, is worth well north of $10 million. The Tigers wouldn't trade Porcello, a Boras client who signed two years ago with the Tigers for a now-bargain $7 million, even for superstar pitcher Roy Halladay.

Executives say Strasburg might be worth $50 million as a free agent. But that is Strasburg's problem: he isn't a free agent.

Word is, Boras has used the bonuses of Daisuke Matsuzaka ($52 million) and Jose Contreras ($32 million) as comparables to Strasburg. Matsuzaka didn't have the leverage of more than one team, either, but management people will point out that he was more accomplished, as the top pitcher in the Japan League (while not the major leagues, the Japan League is much higher quality than San Diego State's Mountain West Conference).

Boras, though, will note that Strasburg, who just turned 21, is five years younger than Matsuzaka was when he signed with Boston, and that Strasburg has better stuff than Matsuzaka. Strasburg has been timed at 100 mph and scouts say he has a devastating breaking ball as well. Even a Nationals person said, "He throws 98 and has a legit hammer [curve]." Boras doesn't see why Strasburg should get less than Matsuzaka.

"Major League teams, in the best interest of baseball, must stop penalizing American boys and American families," Boras said. "The fact of being born in the United States should not result in a dramatic diminution of value, even though your talent exceeds that of a talent born elsewhere."

The issue for American players is leverage -- they don't have much of it. Japan seems like a long shot for Strasburg (though technically, Boston's signing of Junichi Tazawa would seem to open that door). While one person close to the San Diego kid (not Boras) said "he likes sushi," that appeared to have been mostly a joke. The more realistic second option to signing would be to sit out the year and try again next year.

Boras has had a few star prospects who took the idle route, such as J.D. Drew and Luke Hochevar, and both earned extra dough by waiting a year. Drew spurned the Phillies' offer of about $3 million to sign with the Cardinals for $7 million, and Hochevar spurned the Dodgers' offer of about $3 million to ink a deal with the Royals that included a $3.5 million signing bonus and the ability to earn up to $7 million over four years. Others, like Stephen Drew and Max Scherzer of the Diamondbacks, waited 10 months to sign (that isn't an option this time as the deadline is Monday night).

However, none of the previous highly regarded draftees had an eight-figure offer to consider, as Strasburg surely does. And a case could be made that Strasburg's current leverage diminishes if he returns to the draft in 2010 one year older.

The call, ultimately, will be Strasburg's, Boras said. Some previous clients have insisted on signing, as highly regarded catcher Matt Wieters did when he accepted the Orioles' $5 million bonus. Boras is not believed to have felt that was the right offer, considering Wieters' all-around ability. That deal now does look like a tremendous bargain for the Orioles. But Wieters wanted to get on with his pro career.

People close to Strasburg say he wants to start his professional career as soon as possible, and Boras doesn't dispute that notion. But Boras is believed to see no great advantage to signing now, as he doesn't mind the idea of limiting Strasburg's innings to preserve his one-in-50-million arm. Strasburg threw 109 innings for the Aztecs last season, going 12-1 with a 1.32 ERA, allowing 65 hits, striking out 195 and walking 19 (that 10-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio isn't bad). Boras has widely praised Aztecs manager Tony Gwynn, the Hall of Famer, for limiting Strasburg's workload.

Boras has told confidants (and surely the Tigers many times) that he worries about the arm of another prodigy, Porcello, who's pitched 112 innings in the majors with the Tigers at age 20 (he's 10-7 with a 4.34 ERA). Boras worries about the possibility Porcello could repeat the career path of yet another Boras client, Steve Avery, who threw a lot of innings early in his career, including playoff innings, and burned out pretty young.

There is pressure on the Nationals, as they are still in line to lose 100 games this year, even after a recent eight-game winning streak. They recently lost promising right-hander Jordan Zimmermann, who needs Tommy John elbow surgery, and suffered through a couple embarrassments, including the hiring and ultimate firing of Jim Bowden as GM. The Nationals also failed to sign their No. 1 pick last year, University of Missouri pitcher Aaron Crow, who went back in the pool and is now negotiating with the Royals, who also took him in the first round.

"They have to sign him," one competing executive said of the Nationals/Strasburg situation. "If they don't sign him, what are they in business for?"

Kasten has cited the history of past top signings, an indication of where they stand. But Boras sees Strasburg as a history-making case.

By midnight Monday, we will see whether history is repeated or overcome.

• The Diamondbacks and Brewers have until this afternoon to work out a trade for Doug Davis, the former Brewer claimed by Milwaukee on Wednesday. Brewers GM Doug Melvin has publicly downplayed the possibility of a trade, but it makes little sense for the free-agent-to-be to stay in Arizona. And Milwaukee has a desperate need for a starter.

• The Brewers certainly showed they are willing to shake things up again. Last year's late firing of manager Ned Yost was initiated by owner Mark Attanasio, but it is believed the decisions to fire longtime pitching coach Bill Castro, demote shortstop J.J. Hardy and designate Bill Hall were Melvin's. Castro could land elsewhere as a bullpen coach or be back with the Brewers in another capacity next year. Hardy probably needed the wakeup call, and his replacement, Alcides Escobar (Milwaukee's best overall prospect), could provide a spark. Chris Bosio is hoping to stay on as the fulltime pitching coach.

• Even the Yankees think Bronson Arroyo and Aaron Harang are overpriced, with $16.5 million and $18.5 million to go, respectively. So unless the Reds are willing to pay a significant portion of their contracts, they are probably stuck with them. Both pitchers have cleared waivers, thanks to those contracts. Arroyo also probably didn't help his trade value with comments to USA Today about how many drugs he and other baseball players take.

The purpose of these comments isn't known. But there have been hints Arroyo suspects he may be on the list of 2003 survey failures, and perhaps he is trying to get ahead of the story. Arroyo went a little over the top with his remarks, especially invoking the name of serial killer Ted Bundy, saying, "I can see where guys like Hank Aaron and some of the old-timers have a beef with it. But as far as looking at Manny Ramirez like he's Ted Bundy, you're out of your mind."

• Some around the Nationals believe acting GM Mike Rizzo might get the fulltime job. The other candidates are highly regarded club executives Jed Hoyer of Boston and Jerry DiPoto of Arizona. An announcement may come soon.

• Hard to say who's been the better pickup, Matt Holliday (.486 batting average, .800 slugging with the Cardinals) or Cliff Lee (3-0, 1.13 ERA with the Phillies).

• The Yankees are 21-6 since the break. Boston remains a favorite to make the playoffs, but Texas is definitely a threat. Neftali Feliz (13 K's in 6 2/3 innings) has been brilliant.

• Not enough has been said about the terrific job Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux is doing.

CC Sabathia's first 10-strikeout night came at the expense of Ichiro. In Sabathia's supposedly off year, he's 13-7 with a 3.64 ERA. He may be heading toward a finish similar to last year's with Milwaukee.

Jerry Hairston Jr. (.389) was a nice pickup for the Yankees.

• I am starting to believe in Marlins magic. Though, judging by the crowds, you wonder whether their fans do. They've now won six of seven, yet the crowds are still sparse (announced as 14,047 Thursday night).

• The Twitter continues at:

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