Strasburg goes underground for negotiations

Stephen Strasburg is the most-hyped baseball prospect ever. The draft Tuesday was on live television for the first time, courtesy of the fledgling MLB Network. And Strasburg, as expected, was the first pick.

So where was he?

In the TV studio, somebody slapping a Washington Nationals cap on his head while he shook hands with commissioner Bud Selig? Nope.

At home with family, a TV camera transmitting the poignant moment nationwide? Family, maybe. Camera, no way.

From this day forward, Strasburg’s every move will be orchestrated by Scott Boras, baseball’s most influential agent. Strasburg, a right-handed pitcher who has thrown as hard as 103 mph, chose Boras because he plays hardball. Not only does Boras negotiate mega-deals for established major leaguers but also he has made hiking the signing bonuses of amateurs a personal crusade.

Negotiations, though, can be as pleasant as chewing glass, and Strasburg learned Tuesday that a player’s role with Boras is purely subservient – lay low and keep quiet.

“Boras puts them in lockdown,” said a highly placed baseball source. “It’s all part of his negotiating strategy.”

Strasburg was invited to the MLB Network festivities, and Boras politely declined. Some confusion followed. The Boras Corp. sent out a press release Monday saying Strasburg would be available at the agent’s Newport Beach, Calif., offices Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. PT. On Tuesday morning, however, Boras scratched the event, saying that Strasburg instead would talk to reporters Wednesday on a conference call.

Meanwhile, MLB officials fumed. But they weren’t surprised.

“We invited him and it would have been nice for him to be on the telecast, to be introduced to the fan base,” said one baseball official with ties to the network. “It would have been great for us. It would have driven a lot more people to the event. We would have loved it. But knowing Scott, we never expected that Stephen Strasburg would be here.”

To be fair, every player invited except New Jersey high school outfielder Mike Trout declined the MLB invitation to sit in the studio until his name was called. Most players feared they wouldn’t be taken early and might suffer Brady Quinn-like embarrassment. That certainly wasn’t the case with Strasburg.

MLB Network anchor Harold Reynolds lauded Trout for his attendance while seemingly sending a message to Strasburg.

“This is your draft; you should be standing here next to the commissioner holding your jersey,” Reynolds said. “The moment I’ll remember is Mike Trout. The draft is for the kids. They need to be here.”

Boras did allow Strasburg to speak to the network’s hosts on the air over the phone. The three questions – and answers – were pure vanilla.

“It’s just a very exciting day for me and my family, a day I’ve been waiting for, for a very long time,” Strasburg said.

He was asked how he went from being undrafted out of high school three years ago to becoming the No. 1 pick.

“I just had to get tougher, mentally and physically,” he said. “If you want something bad enough, you have to go get it.”

Last question: Are you ready for the big leagues? “You know what, it’s tough to say right now,” he said. “I’m just enjoying this with my friends and family. We’ll have to see what happens.”

The questions on everyone’s mind are behind the Boras quarantine, and they weren’t broached. How much money will it take for Strasburg to sign? If he can’t reach an agreement, would he consider playing in Japan or in an independent league?

Washington team president Stan Kasten and GM Mike Rizzo already have traded cross-country volleys with Boras. The Nationals executives point out that the value of draft picks has been firmly established over the years. That, yes, Strasburg deserves the richest contract ever, but only by a reasonable increment. Boras scoffs at that notion, saying that Strasburg is a supreme talent for whom precedents don’t apply.

“It’s a historic day for us in Washington,” Rizzo said. “[Ownership] is giving us the resources to take the best player in each round. There was never a thought of taking another player.”

College juniors such as Strasburg must sign by Aug. 17 or return to the draft the following year. The Nationals have more leverage than many observers have noted: Strasburg is so close to the big leagues that holding him out for a year would deprive him of major league service time. Furthermore, if he doesn’t sign, the Nats would get the No. 2 pick in next year’s draft.

Boras, however, holds a stronger hand. The Nationals had the No. 1 pick for a reason – they are a poor team with an especially poor pitching staff. If Strasburg develops as projected, he would be a front-of-the-rotation starter within a year, a role that takes paying an established free-agent pitcher $10 million to $16 million a year to fill.

And that’s how Boras is expected to approach negotiations with Washington: Everyone agrees that Strasburg has as much ability as any pitcher in baseball, so he should be paid as such. The Nationals’ reply? The kid hasn’t pitched a single professional inning.

A few MLB officials became friendly with Strasburg last summer when the hard-throwing right-hander played for Team USA in the Olympics. But during the last few weeks, Strasburg stopped returning emails and text messages. “That had to be on orders from Scott,” one official said.

Strasburg’s next two months will be more stressful than anything he’s experienced on the mound. He’ll be out of sight but on plenty of minds. If he feels the need to reach out to someone who has gone through the same drill, he ought to ask Boras for the phone number of Los Angeles Angels starter Jered Weaver(notes).

In 2005, Weaver was projected as the No. 1 pick in the draft out of Long Beach State. He hired Boras as his adviser and fell to the Angels at No. 12 because teams were scared off by reports that he wanted $9 million. It took him nearly a year to sign, and he accepted $4 million.

“I wish I would have known about the process of the draft, after I did get drafted,” Weaver said last weekend. “It was a frantic pace, and obviously it took me a while to sign my contract. While the negotiations went on for all of those months, it was the toughest time in my entire life.

“I was hearing so many different things. If I had to do it all over again, things probably would be a little different.”

But his agent still is Boras. Why? Weaver will be arbitration-eligible for the first time next season. In three years he’ll be a free agent. Boras negotiated contracts that paid Weaver’s brother, Jeff, about $40 million. Jeff Weaver’s(notes) career record is 96-115.

“He does a great job for his clients,” Weaver said. “He goes to battle for you. You just have to trust that everything will work out.”

Even if for Strasburg it means hunkering down for a long summer of waiting.

Yahoo! Sports reporter Jose Mota contributed to this story.

Steve Henson is a Senior Writer and Editor for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter.
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Updated Tuesday, Jun 9, 2009