And Strasburg would lose one year of Major League earning power, a year that could never be brought back, no matter how good he was.
But then, at the 11th hour, came a precedent-setting four-year deal, for $15 million, that made Strasburg a Nats employee. He comes with no guarantee, but he also comes with a fastball that is clocked in three figures, as well as remarkable command. Strasburg is the most highly touted pitcher in the Draft since Mark Prior in 2001. There are no sure things in the First-Year Draft, but the polished college pitcher is cause for confidence. Strasburg is beyond polished. He projects as a singular talent, a franchise pitcher.
The question was: How much could that be worth, in a draftee's first professional contract? That was the core of the discussion and the dispute. The record was held by Prior, who received a $10.5-million deal with the Cubs in 2001 as the second pick in that Draft behind the Twins' selection of Joe Mauer. The outcome of that deal, combined with the comparison of those two careers might be read as a cautionary tale for teams drafting pitching talent. But that is not the way this situation is generally being read.
In the final days of negotiations, the Nationals stated that they had made a record offer to Strasburg, an offer considerably better than Prior's deal. That had to be the case. The Prior draft was eight years ago, and the game, even with the current economic difficulties, is a much bigger revenue generator than it was in 2001.
Strasburg is, of course, being advised by Scott Boras. Had Strasburg not signed, Boras would have been seen as the villain of this piece in some quarters. But this is not "Star Wars," the Force vs. the Dark side, good vs. evil, for the sake of mass entertainment. Boras doesn't have to be beloved by the franchise owners or the fans. His obligation is to get his clients every last nickel that the market will bear. The record says that no other agent carries out this task with the consistent success that Boras has.
This is why he has so many high-profile clients in the first place. Of the last 12 2009 first-round Draft choices who were unsigned as the deadline neared, six of them were being advised by Boras. But in the one negotiation that captured the attention of the baseball world, he once again did not lose.
The Nationals, on the other hand, did not lose this one, either. They obviously paid more than they wanted to pay -- one of their interim offers was widely reported to be $12.5 million. But Strasburg brings them the kind of good will, the kind of positive collective momentum that is otherwise very difficult to find. Draft choices, even overall first picks, don't generally come with Strasburg's kind of advance billing.
The difficulty of signing top-shelf Draft choices was exacerbated this year by the bleak outlook for the general economy. Many teams have conducted themselves with at least a relatively greater measure of fiscal restraint this year. It can become particularly difficult, in those circumstances, for franchises to surrender mega-deals for unproven talent.
But the case of Stephen Strasburg was an exception, in more ways than one. He was the most heralded draftee of the 21st century, and now he will begin working his way toward what he and the Nationals hope is inevitable stardom at the big league level. Let the happier days begin for the franchise in our nation's capital.