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Nats, Strasburg and Boras: Plenty of drama to come

The hope for Stephen Strasburg lies in the excitement that he might someday bring to a ballpark near you. Taking the mound in the All-Star Game and the World Series.

Before that can occur, however, the junior righthander from San Diego State must withstand a high-profile duel off the field.

The Washington Nationals will select Strasburg, 20, Tuesday night with the first pick of the amateur draft, and that will set off the drama.

In one corner, Strasburg and his adviser, legendary agent Scott Boras, who will reportedly ask for a $50-million contract.

In the other corner, the woeful Nationals, who finished with the game's worst record in 2008 and appear very likely to duplicate that feat this season. Headed by president Stan Kasten, a legendary foe of agents, and backed by baseball commissioner Bud Selig.

Both sides possess incentive to find common ground by the Aug. 15 deadline. The 6-4, 220-pound Strasburg, seemingly wouldn't benefit by returning to college. The Nationals desperately need both Strasburg's talent and the buzz it will generate.

This season, Strasburg put up mind-blowing numbers: In 15 starts, he went 13-1 with a 1.32 ERA. He compiled a ridiculous WHIP of 0.77, allowing just 65 hits and 19 walks in 109 innings and striking out 195.

"He has everything going for him to be a top-line starter," one scout, from a team that isn't the Nationals, opined on the condition of anonymity. "But for me, you have to temper your enthusiasm because of what happened in the past."

The scout cited Ben McDonald, drafted by Baltimore out of LSU in 1989, and Mark Prior, drafted by the Cubs out of USC in 2001 (and paid a record $10.5 million), two of the most polished pitchers to enter professional ball. McDonald arguably earned the $1.3 million Baltimore paid him to sign before injuries felled him toward the end of his nine-year career, and Prior flamed out after a spectacular 2003 and is currently in the Padres' organization.

This is where Selig enters the picture. Baseball's central office "slots" the first five rounds of the draft, recommending figures to each team for its assigned pick. This year's slots feature 10 percent cuts.

Dan Halem, baseball's senior vice president and general counsel for labor issues, functions as MLB's "slot cop," maintaining open communication with all 30 clubs and spreading Selig's message.

Though Halem declined to discuss the Strasburg case specifically, he said: "From our perspective, there really isn't a correlation between players who receive over slot and how well they ultimately perform. It's all over the lot . . . We can make an All-Star team of guys who [signed at slot or slightly above it]."

Boras countered by pointing to baseball's history, arguing that special players such as Joe DiMaggio and Al Kaline received signing bonuses higher than the salaries of many contemporary major-leaguers, and that Strasburg, as a U.S.-born player, shouldn't be regarded as less of a commodity than international pitchers such as Jose Contreras (whom the Yankees guaranteed $32 million in December 2002) and Daisuke Matsuzaka (whom the Red Sox paid $51 million in December 2006).

A player such as Strasburg, Boras said, is a "ready-made major-leaguer." Look forward to Strasburg's professional career. But in the meantime, sit back and enjoy the theatrics of the next two months.

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