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Strasburg signing tops off Nats' recent run to respectability

When commissioner Bud Selig told us he had faith in the Washington Nationals back at his All-Star Game briefing, it was assumed he was being more hopeful than realistic. But Selig looks like he might have been on to something.

The Nationals put together an eight-game winning streak recently, they are playing better than the Royals, Pirates, Padres, Mets and several other teams lately, and they topped off their recent run of respectability by making the acquisition of the year Monday.

The highlight of their improving year came late Monday night -- actually one minute, 17 seconds before the midnight signing deadline, according to club president Stan Kasten -- when Washington completed the contract that could jump-start an organization that looked more like a disorganization when the season began. It took the Nationals a record $15.067 million to get right-handed phenom Stephen Strasburg signed, a number that's obviously high but still seems well within reason for a player of this talent.

Not that the number really matters. The Nats could have spent the national debt and it wouldn't have mattered. All that matters is that Strasburg is a National now.

"I'm not proud we gave out the most money ever to a drafted player," Kasten said by phone. "But we're very proud to have signed this player."

The Nationals had no choice. The leverage is normally with the team. But in this case, with the Nationals again holding baseball's worst overall record and coming off a year in which they failed to sign No. 1 pick Aaron Crow, Strasburg held a bit of leverage, as well. The Nats really had no choice but to pay a big price. And, after figures like Daisuke Matsuzaka's $52 million contract and Jose Contreras' $32 million pact were floated out there, this result seems more than reasonable.

The figure represents a record by 50 percent over previous record holder Mark Prior's $10.5 million deal back in 2001. But some baseball people were impressed that Strasburg didn't double Prior's figure (Strasburg's agent, Scott Boras, is famous for doubling Kevin Garnett's then-sport record $126 million deal by getting $252 million for Alex Rodriguez).

Reactions to the final number were mixed, which isn't too bad considering Boras' history of winning this day and making baseball execs nuts. Kasten has a history of making high but good deals with Boras going back to 1992, when they negotiated the $28 million free-agent deal for Greg Maddux, which was a record for a pitcher but maybe the best free-agent acquisition ever made.

"They did really well considering they had no choice but to sign the guy," one competing exec said of the Nationals.

Though, another competing exec opined, "They probably could have gotten it done lower."

Perhaps that's so, but the Nats absolutely could not take that chance.

They could not go back to their smallish fan base and explain that Strasburg was going back in the draft pool for next year. While Strasburg's other options were fairly limited like all drafted players (the best amateur player in the country wasn't about to surrender an eight-figure deal to become a Fort Worth Cat), so were the Nats' options. While there was the usual posturing behind the scenes, this negotiation actually seems to have been somewhat smoother than many others of this ilk (the Pedro Alvarez talks last year, for instance). Boras suggested on Tuesday that walking away was "not once" a strong consideration.

"Getting a deal was really something in both parties' interests," Boras said.

Boras also said they actually never expected to get Daisuke dollars and that at one point (likely on Monday) he proposed a contract for about $20 million, but for more years. And when the Nats wanted a lower guarantee, he suggested a shorter term. He seemed fine in the end with the deal that goes through 2012 and could lead right into arbitration, meaning Strasburg, in all likelihood, will be guaranteed $19 million by virtue of the deal.

Still, it isn't $20 million. And, in this one special case, it isn't crazy money. It's smart money. Strasburg is probably worth $50 mil to the Nats, or more.

Baseball's powers surely wish the Nats' initial bid of $12.5 million had been scooped up by Strasburg. But this isn't bad. The big bonuses paid to unproven kids are Bud's biggest bugaboo, and they were lamenting on Tuesday inside baseball's head offices about the $160 million spent in the first 10 rounds. The informal slotting system was ignored or obliterated by many teams, especially the Yankees, Tigers and Cardinals. Some MLB bigs were none too thrilled.

But folks originally predicted a Strasburg deal could lead to a revamping of the draft system with a real slot system, and there's no reason it should. The $15.067 million guarantee isn't crazy when one considers that Prior's deal came when baseball's revenues were less than half the current $6.5 billion. Plus, as one talent evaluator said, Strasburg is a "freak." In other words, nobody's likely to see a deal of these dollars for years to come. Bryce Harper, another special talent, shouldn't come close to this number. He is said to have incredible power. But he's a high school player. He isn't Strasburg, a No. 1-type pitcher close to ready to break through, the rarest commodity in baseball.

Strasburg is going to make it big-time if you listen to the scouts, who rave about a fastball-curve combination that is killer. It's been said he'll need to work on a third pitch he didn't need in the Mountain West Conference.

"No way in the world he can live up to the hype," Kasten said. "We don't expect him to, and we don't need him to."

They did need Strasburg, however, and it's a good thing they got him.

Much of the $160 million spent on the first 10 rounds of picks may be wasted in the end, as a lot of these kids won't turn out to be big leaguers. But a history of the biggest draft bonuses ever paints a pretty clear picture that the best of the best amateurs are very likely to make an impact at the big-league level.

Of the 15 draftees to receive $5 million in major-league deals, only a couple have failed to make their mark. Some of the better ones include Mark Teixeira, Josh Beckett, Rick Porcello and Pat Burrell. Two haven't done much yet but were traded for big stars. Fourteen of the 15 made the majors, and the Pirates' Pedro Alvarez will make it too.

Danny Knobler of cbssports.com recently listed the 15 previous draftees to sign big-league contracts for at least $5 mil (at least I've added my own comments):

1. Mark Prior ($10.5 million): Big bargain before injury derailed him. Still worth it, if just for the one year.

2. Mark Teixeira ($9.5 million): AL MVP candidate after signing $180 million Yankees deal.

3. David Price ($8.5 million): Still learning as a starter after big bullpen outs last year. Future star.

4. Pat Burrell ($8 million): Very nice career, the hitter Philly expected.

5. J.D. Drew ($7 million): Maybe disappointing to some. But he's made $100 mil-plus.

6. Rick Porcello ($7 million): Tremendous Tigers rookie at 20. Worth 10 times signing figure.

7. Josh Beckett ($7 million): Former World Series hero is Cy Young candidate now.

8. Pedro Alvarez ($6.355 million): Great hitting potential. Too early to tell.

9. Eric Munson ($6.25 million): No position, low batting average.

10. Delmon Young ($5.8 million): Major disappointment, but traded for Jason Bartlett/Matt Garza.

11. Stephen Drew ($5.5 million): Solid starting shortstop with potential for more.

12. Andrew Miller ($5.45 million): Sill learning after going in deal for Miguel Cabrera.

13. Luke Hochevar ($5.25 million): Talented pitcher could be on verge.

14. Mike Pelfrey ($5.25 million): Solid starter taking a slight step back in Mets mess.

15. Jeff Niemann ($5.2 million): Coming into his own this year with 10 wins.

Boras said on Tuesday that it was never his intention to match Matsuzaka's money and that Strasburg was very happy with the deal, which is quite believable. Boras also said he judges his deals by his client's reaction, so he felt very good about things. Boras spoke very kindly about the way the Nationals approached the process and suggested they handled it like a pro operation. Of course, those positive feelings may come partly from the record-setting figure.

Boras didn't match some estimates on Strasburg's deal, but he managed to construct a deal for No. 2 overall pick Dustin Ackley, a University of North Carolina outfield prospect, that guarantees him $7.5 million with a possible $2 million extra in escalator clauses, and also got $6.25 million for Donavan Tate, the Georgia high school outfielder with the University of North Carolina football scholarship. Ackley's contract was the second highest ever for a position player, just behind Teixeira's deal with Texas in '01. Tate's was the most for a high school outfielder.

Boras got $5.5 million on a big-league deal for St. Louis high school pitcher Jacob Turner with Detroit (Turner joins Strasburg and Ackley as Boras' $5-mil-plus big-league deals in this draft) and $2.75 million for USC shortstop Grant Green with Oakland. But he was very disappointed not to have reached a deal with Tampa Bay on Florida high school outfielder LeVon Washington, who was described by one scout as a "Carl Crawford-type." The Rays offered $1.1 million to Washington, less than they paid Crawford a decade earlier. Washington is likely to go to a junior college.

• There are signs the Nats may be close to making a decision on their GM search. Some suggest they may be leaning toward Diamondbacks exec Jerry DiPoto, but Mike Rizzo has been handling duties on an interim basis, and things have been improving in Washington. Well-regarded Boston exec Jed Hoyer is also in the mix. Yahoo.com said multiple sources say it will be DiPoto.

• If there's a switch in GMs, interim manager Jim Riggleman's chances would be fairly minute.

• The Cardinals look like the likely landing spot for Cooperstown-bound right-hander John Smoltz, who can sign anywhere for the minimum today. Hard to believe he'd turn down St. Louis, a strong bet for October.

Billy Wagner could be a good trade candidate. The Cubs, Marlins and Dodgers could all make sense for him.

• For $500,000 and a couple "mid-tier" prospects, the Rangers did well to bring back former Rangers star Ivan Rodriguez, who won 10 Gold Gloves and made 10 All-Star Games in Texas. The Rangers suddenly found themselves short at catcher, and Pudge is expected to catch two-to-three days a week. They hope Jarrod Saltalamacchia (shoulder fatigue) will be back in early September. T.R. Sullivan of MLB.com was first to report Texas was closing in on a deal for Pudge.

• Texas was the other team that failed to sign its No. 1 pick. Matt Purke will head to TCU after his request of $6 million wasn't met. The Rangers offered $4 million.

• The Mets played it cautiously with David Wright by placing him on the disabled list with a concussion. Can't blame 'em for that considering what's gone on there.

• Mets manager Jerry Manuel goofed when he inadvertently drew former Met Ryan Church into a verbal dispute. Manuel and Church never saw eye to eye, an obvious issue both denied while together. But Manuel was wrong to suggest that Church's messed-up 2008 season had anything to do with the way Church handled things, which was what he did when he claimed that the Mets' Mr. Perfect David Wright and Church are "different" in comparing the two concussion victims. Manuel said he meant no offense, but the remark did seem fairly offensive, especially considering the issue was the way in which the team handled the situation.

Lou Piniella is hearing abuse from the very Cubs faithful that loved him at the start of the year. No way the Cubs fire Piniella, whose 2010 option for $4 million was exercised at the end of the 2008 regular season. Which is exactly when the disappointment began. As Cubs star Derrek Lee noted, Piniella isn't being treated quite as harshly as predecessor Dusty Baker yet. But it's been a very rough year for Piniella, who's had issues with a couple key players, as well (Milton Bradley, Carlos Zambrano). There's no evidence Piniella might walk away yet. But he's done it before, first in Seattle and later in Tampa.

• Piniella finally removed Kevin Gregg as closer. Not to add to the abuse, but he took a bit too long there.

• Not to pile on Dusty Baker, either. But he is not exactly working magic in Cincinnati.

Bobby Abreu quietly has put together an excellent year for the Angels. He didn't complain about his $5 million deal, and did what he always does, which is to produce.

• Red Sox people are concerned about David Ortiz.

• How tweet it is. Here's how you can follow me: http://twitter.com/SI_jonHeyman.

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