Baseball’s Attention Turns to Strasburg, Potential Landmark Stand-off

Now that the Pirates, Nationals, and Padres have finished feeding the rest of baseball with its best players, the debate surrounding competitive balance returns to the contract negotiations between Washington and top draft pick Stephen Strasburg. The possibilities and consequences are well documented, yet surprisingly we’ve heard little or nothing about the negotiation process since shortly after the draft. No news is bad news for everyone.

Let’s take a macro perspective of a Washington National fan for a second. Your team stinks, have ever since moving to the area. Your highest paid player is – ready for this – Christian Guzman, a glorified singles hitter. The Nats failed to sign last year’s first round draft pick. What amounts to a money laundering scandal ravaged the front office forcing changes at GM and in the scouting department. No top talent to even trade at the deadline, leave the draft and free agency as its only saviors. Throw in an average ticket price in the Top 10. No wonder they are in the bottom 5 in attendance, despite a two-year old ballpark.

Piling on and joking aside, the team has been a public disaster. They have no marketing hook to draw fans, and the base on which the front office is building the on-field product is still unproven, and risky. The consequences, both short and long term, for not signing Strasburg are disastrous. Washington needs him to give fans hope, they need him in the majors almost immediately to draw fans, and to inject an otherwise morbid team with life. Unlike superstar hitters, who teams can ultimately pitch around if no other talent is present, pitchers can star on the worst of teams and help turn things around. Big picture, if they don’t sign Strasburg, it would leave player development with a gaping hole from missing on top draft picks for two consecutive years. I don’t think its out of the realm to say that could jeopardize the franchise’s sustainability, and indirectly lead to more payroll cuts.

If Strasburg does not sign, it moves baseball one step further from the essence of a true reverse-order draft. They have almost lost what each draft pick means. Its no longer a guarantee that the second pick is better than the 15th pick, signability and player demands have crept into the equation. Does anyone think Blake Griffin really wanted to play for the Clippers or Matthew Stafford for the Lions? Of course not, but if the NFL and NBA allowed those college athletes to strong arm the teams, the Clips and Lions would never improve. In baseball’s case, it would then incentivize bottom teams to slash any payroll and simply collect competitive balance tax, take profits, and be content in last place arguing how baseball never gives them a chance. NFL pundits scream for a cap on draft contracts, in a league where most top picks are ready to play almost immediately, thus lowering the risk variance of each player relative to baseball draftees who face a road through the minors, numerous other obstacles before making an impact – if they ever make it. If teams placed a volatility index of drafted players, baseball draftees would by far be the riskiest, yet it’s the least regulated draft.

While Boras’ demands are outrageous, though he’ll never admit that, one perspective he takes to the table is if Strasburg performs at a peak level, he’s stuck in arbitration for up to six years, so this is his visit to the bank. Perhaps that’s part of the give and take in the next CBA, allowing top draft picks to take less up front bonus money in exchange for a shorter arbitration period. We can discuss many permutations of how such a system would work so teams could still benefit from players for a period of time before free agency, but players could also garner market value earlier in their career.

All in all, something has to change. For Washington’s sake, let’s hope that whatever change happens in the next CBA negotiations is not too late for them.

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